Ozone Hole Leaks and Other Tales

[2] The hole in the ozone layer and atmospheric pollution (including but not limited to aerosols) cause global warming. Like the previous one, this one is also very tenacious and difficult to dispel because it is often presented this way in the media and most primary and secondary school teachers share the same fallacy. Perhaps one of the underlying faulty notions here is that the Earth receives heat from the Sun, instead of radiation. So, the thinking here is that the ozone layer shields our planet from the Sun’s harmful rays and its heat. And because there is a hole in the ozone layer, the extra heat seeps in and gets stuck under the ozone layer causing the greenhouse effect. I know, yikes!! I try to dispel this misconception by explaining that though the sun is indeed quite hot, there is all this empty space between the Sun and our planet and heat travels to Earth as infrared radiation from the sun, but the Sun’s output of infrared is only a fraction of its output as visible light. Energy from the sun mostly reaches us as visible light and ultraviolet radiation. (Minor edit to remove confusion with sensible heat and radiation. Sorry about that!).

However, the notion that global warming and ozone depletion are linked is not entirely wrong. As was discussed earlier on RealClimate (Ozone depletion and global warming), original CFC’s as well as ozone itself are powerful greenhouse gases and stratospheric cooling caused by the increase in atmospheric CO2 actually accelerates ozone loss there. Even the replacement gases to be used in lieu of CFCs may have significant greenhouse warming potential. BUT, ozone depletion (“the hole in the ozone layer”) does not cause global warming.

This discussion eventually lends its way to a discussion of aerosols (see Aerosols: the Last Frontier) and although aerosols tend to scatter or absorb incoming solar radiation (hence a warming effect), their net effect is in the direction of cooling because they have a positive influence on the nucleation of clouds which increases our planet’s albedo (ability to reflect light).

[3] The greenhouse effect and global warming are the same thing. This is another yikes!! Perhaps the root of the problem here is that the discussion of the greenhouse effect in the classroom is often tightly linked with that of global warming. It needs to be explicitly pointed out to students that without the greenhouse effect our planet’s surface would be about 30 degrees C cooler and with wild differences in temperature between night and day. Not exactly habitable. But anthropogenic global warming is caused by the human-induced increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, particularly CO2. Most of the past changes in climate on glacial-interglacial timescales can be explained by invoking changes in solar activity and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, sure. But the warming we have been experiencing in the last few decades cannot be explained if we do not include the effect of greenhouse gases released by human activities (see the IPCC 4th Assessment SPM, and Avery and Singer: Unstoppable Hot Air, just to name a couple).

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