Bigger storms mean bigger punch into ozone layer

Jul 30, 2012

The journal Science has just published a new study from scientists at Harvard University showing how a rise in global temperatures is helping to destroy the ozone layer.

Scientists already knew the ozone layer was thinning over the polar regions. “But the idea that we could be reducing the ozone layer in the mid-latitudes is very alarming because so many people live in the mid-latitudes.” says Joellen Russell, a professor of Biogeochemical Dynamics at the university of Arizona. “There are public health issues with less ozone, meaning that we might be exposed to more skin cancer.”

But the study has even bigger implications.

The layer of the atmosphere closer to the earth is already warming.  As heat and water vapor fuel storms—bigger storms—over the continental United States, they punch water vapor higher into the atmosphere, into the stratosphere. That water vapor cools the stratosphere—and destroys ozone.

Meanwhile, with all those changes in temperature, stronger winds can develop in that transition level between the two layers of the atmosphere. As that happens, Russell says “we could actually potentially see either an increase in the westerly wind speeds or a change in their position.”

Those wind speeds she’s referring to? The jet stream, which the southwestern United States relies upon for its winter precipitation.

Most people understand climate change means warming, but it may also mean changes in patterns. And as Russell points out, humans may have a harder time adapting to those changes in circulation than to a straightforward temperature increase.

“The change in the patterns may actually lead to bigger floods, changes in flood location, bigger droughts, changes in drought location,” she says. “I’m not saying that we’ve proved this. These are the possibilities, and they are the areas of very active and very interesting research.”

To hear extended excerpts of KUNM’s interview with Joellen Russell, visit KUNM's Earth Air Waves blog.