Like an infection that grows more and more virulent, the continent-size hole in Earth's ozone layer keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Each year since the late 1970s, much of the protective layer of stratospheric ozone above Antarctica has disappeared during September, creating what is popularly known as the ozone hole. The Antarctic hole now measures about 9 million square miles, nearly the size of North America. Less dramatic, still significant, depletion of ozone levels has been recorded around the globe. With less ozone in the atmosphere, more ultraviolet radiation strikes Earth, causing more skin cancer, eye damage, and possible harm to crops.
What is ozone? How did researchers discover its role in Earth's atmosphere and the devastating consequences of its depletion? The following article, adapted from an account by Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland, a pioneering researcher in the field who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work, attempts to answer these and other questions. In doing so, it dramatically illustrates how science works and, in particular, how basic research—motivated by a desire to understand nature—often leads to practical results of immense societal benefit that could not have been anticipated when the research first began.
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