The ozone layer or ozone shield is a region of Earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It contains a high concentration of ozone (O3) in relation to other parts of the atmosphere, although still small in relation to other gases in the stratosphere.
Ozone layer contains less than 10 parts per million of ozone, while the average ozone concentration in Earth’s atmosphere as a whole is about 0.3 parts per million. The ozone layer is mainly found in the lower portion of the stratosphere, from approximately 15 to 35 kilometers (9 to 22 mi) above Earth, although its thickness varies seasonally and geographically.
The ozone layer was discovered in 1913 by the French physicists Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson. Measurements of the sun showed that the radiation sent out from its surface and reaching the ground on Earth.
Usually consistent with the spectrum of a black body with a temperature in the range of 5,500–6,000 K (5,230–5,730 °C), except that there was no radiation below a wavelength of about 310 nm at the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. It was deduced that the missing radiation was being absorbed by something in the atmosphere. Eventually the spectrum of the missing radiation was matched to only one known chemical, ozone.
The ozone layer absorbs 97 to 99 percent of the Sun’s medium-frequency ultraviolet light (from about 200 nm to 315 nm wavelength), which otherwise would potentially damage exposed life forms near the surface. Read more interesting facts about the Shield of Earth from the Sun’s Ultraviolet Radiation Ozone by Pritish Kumar Halder.
The photochemical mechanisms that give rise to the ozone layer were discovered by the British physicist Sydney Chapman in 1930. Ozone in the Earth’s stratosphere is created by ultraviolet light striking ordinary oxygen molecules containing two oxygen atoms (O2), splitting them into individual oxygen atoms (atomic oxygen); the atomic oxygen then combines with unbroken O2 to create ozone, O3. The ozone molecule is unstable (although, in the stratosphere, long-lived) and when ultraviolet light hits ozone it splits into a molecule of O2 and an individual atom of oxygen, a continuing process called the ozone-oxygen cycle. Chemically, this can be described as:
About 90 percent of the ozone in the atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere. Ozone concentrations are greatest between about 20 and 40 kilometres (66,000 and 131,000 ft), where they range from about 2 to 8 parts per million. If all of the ozone were compressed to the pressure of the air at sea level, it would be only 3 millimeters (1⁄8 inch) thick.
Although the concentration of the ozone in the ozone layer is very small, it is vitally important to life because it absorbs biologically harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the Sun. Extremely short or vacuum UV (10–100 nm) is screened out by nitrogen. UV radiation capable of penetrating nitrogen is divided into three categories, based on its wavelength; these are referred to as UV-A (400–315 nm), UV-B (315–280 nm), and UV-C (280–100 nm).
UV-C, which is very harmful to all living things, is entirely screened out by a combination of dioxygen (< 200 nm) and ozone (> about 200 nm) by around 35 kilometres (115,000 ft) altitude. UV-B radiation can be harmful to the skin and is the main cause of sunburn; excessive exposure can also cause cataracts, immune system suppression, and genetic damage, resulting in problems such as skin cancer.
The ozone layer (which absorbs from about 200 nm to 310 nm with a maximal absorption at about 250 nm) is very effective at screening out UV-B; for radiation with a wavelength of 290 nm, the intensity at the top of the atmosphere is 350 million times stronger than at the Earth’s surface. Nevertheless, some UV-B, particularly at its longest wavelengths, reaches the surface, and is important for the skin’s production of vitamin D.
Ozone is transparent to most UV-A, so most of this longer-wavelength UV radiation reaches the surface, and it constitutes most of the UV reaching the Earth. This type of UV radiation is significantly less harmful to DNA, although it may still potentially cause physical damage, premature aging of the skin, indirect genetic damage, and skin cancer.
The ozone layer can be depleted by free radical catalysts, including nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydroxyl (OH), atomic chlorine (Cl), and atomic bromine (Br). While there are natural sources for all of these species, the concentrations of chlorine and bromine increased markedly in recent decades because of the release of large quantities of man-made organ halogen compounds, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Bromo fluorocarbons.
These highly stable compounds are capable of surviving the rise to the stratosphere, where Cl and Br radicals are liberated by the action of ultraviolet light. Each radical is then free to initiate and catalyze a chain reaction capable of breaking down over 100,000 ozone molecules. By 2009, nitrous oxide was the largest ozone-depleting substance (ODS) emitted through human activities.
Implications for astronomy
As ozone in the atmosphere prevents most energetic ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the Earth, astronomical data in these wavelengths have to be gathered from satellites orbiting above the atmosphere and ozone layer. Most of the light from young hot stars is in the ultraviolet and so study of these wavelengths is important for studying the origins of galaxies. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer, GALEX, is an orbiting ultraviolet space telescope launched on April 28, 2003, which operated until early 2012.