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What If the O-Zone Layer Disappeared?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
We can't see it. We don't really feel it. But we'd definitely know about it if the O-Zone layer was gone. But, why? How? And exactly how much trouble would we be in? In this video, we imagine planet Earth without its protective, atmospheric layer - the O-Zone layer. And, it's not a pretty place!

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What If the Ozone Layer Completely Disappeared?

While it isn’t quite the environmental cause célèbre that it once was, the condition of the ozone layer – and the status of the hole within it – should remain a concern for all of us. After all, without it, we wouldn’t survive on this planet. But why is that? What is the ozone layer, and what does it do? And what would happen if it ever disappeared?

Essentially, the ozone layer is a crucial section of Earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s dangerous radiation. The ‘Ozone’ part relates to a gas that’s created by the radiation itself which, as part of an ongoing chemical process, envelops us on Earth, allowing us to feel pleasant warmness from our central star rather than horrific burning.

All in all, it's a pretty swell arrangement, except that through a series of poor choices, humanity has caused a sizeable hole to tear through this protective barrier. From September to December, this ominous hole forms over most of Antarctica, creating a void where over 50% of the ozone has completely vanished. The general amount of ozone in the stratosphere has radically reduced since the late 1970s, too – mostly due to our ongoing use of ozone-depleting substances (or ODSs) including solvents and propellants found in everyday products like hairspray and deodorant. When these release into the atmosphere, they trigger a chemical process known as photodissociation – which converts ozone back into regular oxygen, which simply doesn’t provide the same shield.

It’s not exactly new science, and we have at least looked to lessen the threat. Tests began in the 1970s, with the experts eventually convincing the world’s nations to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987. It was an agreement to reduce our reliance on anti-ozone products worldwide. And, to some degree, it has worked. Ozone depletion slowed, and it’s now in the process of recovering… With the most encouraging estimates saying that we should reach pre-1980 levels of ozone protection sometime between 2050 and 2070. It looks a long process, but steps have been made in a positive direction.

But, what if there was nothing we could do? What if the ozone depletion was irreparable, and the life-enabling layer was gone? How would our planet cope?

For one thing, it wouldn’t be green anymore. UV light plays a major role in photosynthesis and in many major processes of a plant’s life, including gene regulation and cell expansion. However, plants are a lot like us, and too much UV exposure can damage their DNA, membranes and growth. A plant usually protects itself from the harmful effects of radiation via its photoreceptors, which sense the danger and induce adaptation. But, without the ozone layer, plants would feel the full power of the sun’s UV, and quickly die.

This destruction of vital crops would not only damage food supplies, but also severely limit the amount of oxygen in the air – sending the entire food chain into disarray. Herbivores would be out of food, while everything else would need to fight each other over dwindling meat supplies. As the plant-eaters begin to die out, their bodies would more quickly decompose in the harsh sunlight – meaning even scavenging meals would become more and more difficult. Over time, the burnt corpses would pile up, and Earth would adopt an all-new, foul-smelling odour.

Of course, it’d be the same rule for us as the animals, with any human who ventures outside getting horrifically burnt. A sort of super-sunburn would set in after less than five minutes of unfiltered radiation exposure, literally blistering our skin within moments, and causing small yet unbelievably painful, gross, and itchy pus-filled wounds all over our bodies. Then would come the sunburn sickness, as victims experience extreme nausea, dizziness and even hallucinations. Should we be forced to stand outside for long enough, it’s even possible that our skin would burn away from our muscles and bones.

All things considered, we’d have to become a race of hermits, to stand any chance of survival. And venturing outdoors would only ever be done if decked head-to-toe in reliable protective gear – the sort that would only be accessible to a small percentage of the population. As for where we’d actually live, the best bet would be underground – in nuclear-standard bunkers. We’d need a reliable stock of long-life food, bottled water, and some way of exiting waste. We’d also need oxygen tanks, or some sort of oxygen supply, given that the Earth’s atmosphere on the surface would undergo massive changes – and breathable air could well become a thing of the past. In theory, such a set-up is possible, but only for anyone who’s already prepared. And even then, it’s a cramped and closed-off lifestyle that’d be difficult to maintain.

Back outside, the dangers would only escalate. With increased exposure to the sun’s radiation comes a sky-rocketing number of skin cancer sufferers. Even now, with the ozone layer in reasonably working order, spending too long under the sun is dangerous. Strip away the barrier between us and a full blast of solar energy, and the cancers develop faster and even more ruthlessly.

Blindness would become another widespread and devastating problem. Even regular UV rays slowly damage our eyes every single day, but the threat is usually mitigated by the wearing of hats and sunglasses. Nevertheless, over a lifetime, the sun’s rays can cause the protein in our eyes to clump together… which significantly reduces the amount of light that reaches our retinas… which results in a visual impairment of some kind; often cataracts. Without the ozone layer, it’s another biological process that would inevitably speed up and become more severe, stripping us of a key sense to further slash our prospects of survival.

Clearly, the Earth without the ozone layer is an inhospitable environment. It’s no longer a life-supporting haven, but a volatile, unpredictable hell. But, what of the planet itself? Surely it could withstand such a change, without burning, blistering or boiling into nothingness.

While it’s true that the Earth wouldn’t disappear, it would undergo a dramatic transformation. Carbon dioxide would proliferate the atmosphere, and the oceans would release incredible amounts of water vapour. Today, the seas absorb up to 50% of all man-made carbon dioxide, mostly via microscopic plankton. But, as the plankton dies along with everything else – including land-based CO2 stores like swamps, forests and woodlands – the absorption stops. Carbon dioxide takes over, the planet heats up, its water boils off (at least in part), and Earth devolves into something not unlike Venus – which labours under an atmosphere that’s 96.5% CO2, causing surface temperatures to reach upwards of 864 degrees Fahrenheit. The fact that some experts even believe that Venus once resembled Earth a long, long time ago, shows just how important the ozone layer is to our planet’s preservation. It’s absolutely vital, so let’s hope we can continue to patch it up – for all our sakes.

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