Let’s learn – Ozone

Ozone (O3) is a relatively unstable molecule made up of three atoms of oxygen (O). Although it represents only a tiny fraction of the atmosphere, ozone is crucial for life on Earth.

Most ozone resides in the stratosphere (a layer of the atmosphere between 10 and 40 km above us), where it acts as a shield to protect Earth’s surface from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. With a weakening of this shield, we would be more susceptible to skin cancer, cataracts and impaired immune systems.

Ozone absorbs UV-B radiation from the sun. When an ozone molecule absorbs UV-B, it comes apart into an oxygen molecule (O2) and a separate oxygen atom (O). Later, the two components can reform the ozone molecule (O3). By absorbing UV-B in the stratosphere, the ozone layer prevents harmful levels of this radiation from reaching Earth’s surface.

The production of ozone in the stratosphere results primarily from the breaking of the chemical bonds within oxygen molecules (O2) by high-energy solar photons. This process, called photodissociation, results in the release of single oxygen atoms, which later join with intact oxygen molecules to form ozone. Rising atmospheric oxygen concentrations some two billion years ago allowed ozone to build up in Earth’s atmosphere, a process that gradually led to the formation of the stratosphere.

The amount of ozone in the stratosphere varies naturally throughout the year as a result of chemical processes that create and destroy ozone molecules and as a result of winds and other transport processes that move ozone molecules around the planet. Over the course of several decades, however, human activities substantially altered the ozone layer.


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