An international team of scientists claims a particular type of aurora known as the “isolated proton aurora” has created a 400-kilometer-wide (250-mile) hole in the ozone layer. The rapidness and extent of the hole have left scientists concerned, but the finding may have ramifications.
The science and other stuff to know
Life on Earth depends on the ozone layer, which shields us from the lethal UV radiation the sun unleashes. Thus, keeping the ozone intact and with as few holes as possible has been a goal of the science community for many years now. Despite the healing of one of the well-known ozone holes, auroras may have just opened yet another ozone hole.
But how are auroras creating holes in the ozone layer? An international research team from Japan, the U.S., and Canada published a study in the journal Scientific Reports, detailing how a certain type of aurora is affecting our atmosphere’s ozone layer. The team explained that isolated proton auroras created a roughly 400-km (250-mile) hole within about 90 minutes of the aurora’s appearance.
This happens because isolated proton auroras expend plasma, which contains electrons. Those electrons become ionized and charged up when they fall along magnetic field lines in the ozone layer. After charging, the electrons produce nitrogen oxides and hydrogen oxides which tear the ozone layer.
“Researchers from a wide range of research fields related to plasma physics, aurora science, trace atmospheric composition sensing, and electromagnetic wave engineering were brought together to achieve comprehensive observations through international cooperation,” explains team member Kazuo Shiokawa, a professor at the Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research at Nagoya University.
Though the damage left behind in mesospheric ozone does repair itself more quickly than holes in stratospheric ozone (which are often caused by human activity), isolated proton auroras still influence changes in the atmosphere. Space weather, which is the term for variations in the space environment brought on by charged particles and electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun, can damage electrical systems and satellites and pose a risk to astronauts.
Researchers believe that the finding in this new study can help forecast Earth’s atmosphere changes and space weather fluctuations.
“This study revealed that radiation belt electrons falling into the atmosphere from space around the Earth have a rapid and localized effect on the composition of the microatmosphere, including ozone, the team said, according to a press release.”This finding is expected to contribute to an improved prediction of short-term changes in the Earth’s atmospheric environment by considering the effects of atmospheric ionization by high-energy plasma from space. This result strongly suggests that the influence of radiation belt electrons cannot be ignored in predicting changes in the Earth’s atmospheric environment.
Before anyone gets alarmed that the Northern Lights are harming the ozone layer, that isn’t quite the case. Only isolated proton aurora are doing it and the damage only extends to the mesosphere, not the stratospheric ozone layer that protects life on Earth.