Shrinking Ozone Threatens Nations Down Under

Oct. 20, 2000 -- With sunburns in as little as seven minutes, Chileans are already feeling the effects of a thinning ozone layer.

If this warming continues, down under nations will be the first to face the devastating economic effects. The rest of the world will follow.

Chilean officials issued an ozone alert Oct. 9 as an “arm” of low-ozone atmosphere passed over southern Chile, dousing the region with extremely high levels of ultraviolet radiation.

Those who ventured outside without protection suffered sunburns in as little as seven minutes. As the ozone layer shrinks, such occurrences will become more frequent in other, more populous areas, damaging local economies and public health.

The ozone layer is a thin, stratospheric layer of gas that absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation (UV) the sun produces. While UV that normally penetrates the ozone layer causes sunburn, prolonged exposure can cause skin cancer.

UV radiation can damage livestock and fish and hobble the economies of several countries if exposure becomes constant.

Antarctic Threat

The ozone layer has been steadily thinning since monitoring began in 1985. Nowhere has this decrease been more dramatic than over the Antarctic — the hub of global wind currents.

Here an ozone “hole” forms each southern winter, reaching its largest extent in September when colder temperatures inhibit ozone formation. Experts in the World Meteorological Organization, a branch of the United Nations, say this year’s ozone hole is the deepest and largest ever, with over 50 percent depletion over an area three times the size of the United States.

Occasionally, areas of thinner ozone spin off the main Antarctic hole; one of these passed over southern Chile Oct. 9.

Unlike other environmental issues, such as the greenhouse effect, less controversy surrounds ozone depletion. We can readily measure ozone layer density and surface UV levels, observing yearly changes.

Alleged global warming issues, however, occur over generations, making it easy to delay decisions. In contrast to the slow pace and skepticism with which some governments approach global warming, action on the ozone layer has been relatively swift.

The landmark treaty is the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which aims to regulate and eventually ban chlorofluorocarbons, the primary ozone-damaging chemical. So far over 140 countries have signed the protocol.

But it will take decades — some scientists say centuries — for the ozone layer to repair itself. That is assuming the damage stops today.

Other ozone-damaging chemicals, such as nitrous oxide and methane, are more difficult to separate from human activity. Nitrous oxide is a byproduct of catalytic converters on standard automobiles and the burning of jet fuel.

Both modern and traditional agriculture produce huge amounts of methane. With no acceptable substitute for jet fuel — or steak — the ozone hole is likely to increase.

Alarm Over the Future

This is not good news if you live in lands down under. Punta Arenas, Chile, has a population of 120,000, making it the largest city in the danger zone.

Australia and New Zealand, two countries near the danger zone, have the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world. While the ozone layer will likely continue to thin globally, at the bottom of the world people face a growing seasonal challenge.

A view from Antarctica reveals Punta Arenas will share its UV woes with many major cities in coming years.

The toll on public health will be considerable. The thinning ozone layer will affect all industries to some degree.

Agriculture, fishing and tourism will face the most severe damage. Livestock is not as vulnerable to UV as mankind is, but animals face far longer exposure times.

UV slowly unravels the DNA in plankton, reducing the food supply available for commercially harvested fish. Tourists will avoid locations like Argentina or South Africa if they face a significant cancer risk.

Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa will face problems in years to come, especially since agriculture, fishing and tourism are central to their economies. In New Zealand alone — the smallest and most remote of the countries affected — tourism is a $4.5 billion a year industry.

Peter Zeihan is an economic analyst for, the Internet source of global intelligence.