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By studying ice core samples scientists have discovered particles trapped in the ice that suggest pollution of Antarctica’s atmosphere is nothing new. But the situation could be getting worse.

While some of the pollution in Antarctica is from sources like vehicle exhausts and emissions from planes and helicopters transporting supplies, the vast majority of atmospheric pollution detected in Antarctica comes from elsewhere.

Scientists are trying to find new, alternative energy sources to fuel vehicles and to generate heat for the research stations in Antarctica. Even more important will be efforts in the rest of the world to reduce emissions. But attempts to reduce atmospheric pollution have a time delay before they begin to make a difference. This is well illustrated by the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, first discovered by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists in 1985. The hole was caused by the release of chemicals like CFCs, once used to make fridges, spray cans, foam and other products.

ozone hole 2003With less ozone in the upper atmosphere more harmful rays of ultra-violet light reach the Earth’s surface, presenting real dangers to people’s health. If people aren’t properly protected they are at risk of serious sunburn and have a higher chance of developing deadly forms of skin cancer. Antarctica’s marine environment could be badly affected too. Increased ultra violet radiation threatens phytoplankton and the larvae of fish and shrimps in the water, which could have effects right through the food web.

Covering an area of 22 million square kilometres, the ozone hole above Antarctica in spring 2005 was only slightly smaller than 2003’s record-breaker. Worryingly, measurements taken then by British Antarctic Survey scientists recorded only half the normal level of ozone expected over the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea.

Many scientists believe that the situation would be much worse without the 1989 Montreal Protocol, the agreement signed by 80 countries to begin phasing out the use of CFCs and other gases that cause the break-up of the ozone layer. Yet gases like CFCs linger in the atmosphere for decades so they continue to cause damage long after they are released. Even if the world stopped using these substances tomorrow, it could still take until 2050 before the ozone hole disappears.