(Submitted January 05, 1997)
Is it possible that the primary cause of ozone depletion are
cosmic rays as it enters the atmosphere? And the big "hole"
of the ozone layer at Antarctica is the result of the geomagnetic
effect on cosmic rays, even though they are isotropic?
The ozone layer is the result of an equilibrium between the creation and
destruction of ozone by UV light (UV creates ozone by ionizing free oxygen
atoms which then combine with oxygen molecules to create ozone). Cosmic rays
have been studied since the 1930s and we have no reason to believe that cosmic
rays have not always existed. So if cosmic rays destroyed ozone at a
significant level, then there would be no ozone layer (or at least a layer
significantly smaller than the UV-only interaction picture would predict).
More specifically, cosmic rays are made up of high energy particles and
photons, which only react well with free electrons and dense material with
high atomic numbers (note that high-Z atoms have a lot of electrons which are
effectively "free" given the high energy of the cosmic
rays). So in order for
cosmic rays to have been significant in the creation of ozone holes, the flux
of cosmic rays would have had to have increased by orders of magnitude, which
has not occurred (to my knowledge).
for the Ask an Astrophysicist team
Note added in 2001 August:
It is thought that man-made chlorofluorocarbons
(CFCs), such as Freon, are the major destroyer of the ozone layer.
The prevailing theory is that ultraviolet light breaks down CFCs,
releasing active chlorine, which destroys ozone molecules.
However, a recent study
suggests that cosmic rays may also break down CFCs. If this is correct,
cosmic rays do play a part in creating ozone holes, but only because
there are man-made CFC molecules for them to break down.