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Investigating a potential new threat to the ozone layer

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Posted December 12, 2019

Chlorofluorocarbons were the culprits more than three decades ago. Now, a new threat to Earth’s ozone layer could be looming.

Monstrous thunderstorms that develop over the U.S. Great Plains are lofting gases and other pollutants high into the stratosphere, where they could potentially trigger the depletion of the planet’s protective shield that absorbs nearly all of the sun’s harmful radiation.

  Atmospheric scientist Elliot Atlas and postdoctoral students Katie Smith, left, and Victoria Treadway examine some of the instruments that are used to collect and analyze air samples from the upper stratosphere. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

Atmospheric scientist Elliot Atlas and postdoctoral students Katie Smith, left, and Victoria Treadway examine some of the instruments that are used to collect and analyze air samples from the upper stratosphere. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

More than 200 overshooting storms occur each day over the contiguous U.S., many of them in the high plains of the central United States, according to the Next Generation Weather Radar system.

“But we’ve got very few direct measurements of what goes on in the stratosphere when they happen,” said Elliot Atlas, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

An atmospheric chemist, Atlas is part of a NASA-funded project aimed at finding out.

Through the Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS), scientists will investigate how strong summertime convective storms over North America can impact the chemistry and radiative properties of the stratosphere.

NASA ER-2 aircraft. Image credit: NASA.

Over the next two summers, a NASA ER-2 aircraft equipped with special instruments will fly out of Salina, Kansas, collecting the critical data researchers need to analyze the storms’ impact.

With its elongated wingspan, the ER-2 looks more like an albatross than an airplane. But the single-engine jet, used back in the 1980s to take measurements of industrial chemicals that were depleting the ozone over Antarctica, is the right aircraft for the job.

A modified version of the United States Air Force U-2 spy plane, the ER-2 flies on the edge of space, reaching altitudes of up to 70,000 feet.

Pilots wear pressurized suits like those worn by astronauts to survive the extreme low pressures and freezing temperatures they encounter at those altitudes.

“Our range of interest is from about 40,000 to 65,000 feet high,” said Atlas, who will travel to Salina for three eight-week deployments, installing his instruments on the ER-2, participating in preflight briefings, and, if necessary, communicating with the pilots during their high-altitude sorties.

During the flights, instruments mounted on the ER-2’s wings and underbelly will suck in air samples, bringing them back to the lab for Atlas and other researchers to analyze.

From gases to the different types and composition of aerosols to isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water, Atlas will take a range of measurements. He will also look at levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Data from NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites, conventional weather observations and forecast models, and ground-based meteorological radars will also be collected and analyzed.

Atlas is one of more than 20 researchers involved in the $30 million DCOTSS, which is part of NASA’s Earth Venture Suborbital research program. Kenneth Bowman, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, is the lead investigator. Researchers from Harvard; MIT; NASA’s Ames, Armstrong, Goddard and Langley research centers; the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and the Universities of North Dakota and Oklahoma; and Texas A&M Corpus Christi are working on the project.

Two postdoctoral students from Atlas’s lab, Katie Smith and Victoria Treadway, will accompany him on the deployments.

No evidence exists yet that overshooting storms are contributing to ozone depletion. In fact, ever since the implementation in the late 1980s of the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement aimed at regulating the production and use of chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons that contribute to ozone destruction, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) have declined substantially, according to the EPA.

“Continued declines in ODS emissions are expected to result in a near-complete recovery of the ozone layer near the middle of the 21st century,” the EPA reports.

Still, the potential threat to the ozone posed by overshooting storms is worth investigating, said Atlas.

“We’re living in an environment that’s getting warmer,” he said. “With warmer conditions, the air contains more moisture, and this sort of overshooting process is bound in the future to continually add more water as the climate continues to warm.”

Source: University of Miami

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