Thunderstorms on Steroids Punching Holes in Ozone

A thunderstorm near Denver, Colorado reaches for the stratosphere. These days, supercharged thunderstorms are punching through the ozone layer, exposing living things below to a new threat. (Photo by Dan Mahr/Flickr)

Scientists at Harvard University have discovered yet another unexpected — not to mention unintended — consequence of  climate change. Thunderstorms on steroids — supercharged by the increased heat energy trapped in the atmosphere — are, as it were, punching massive holes in the ozone layer. The implications for life on earth are profound, and profoundly negative.

The scientists, under the leadership of professor of atmospheric chemistry James G. Anderson, were not even looking at the ozone layer. “We were investigating the behavior of convective water vapor as part of our climate research,” Anderson told Harvard Magazine, “not ozone photochemistry. What proved surprising was the remarkable altitude to which water vapor was being lofted—altitudes exceeding 60,000 feet—and how frequently it was happening.” This was thought to be impossible. (“Anvil head” is the common name given a thunderstorm whose top is sheared flat and spread out, so that it resembles an anvil, by encountering the stratosphere about 30,000 feet up.)

The Harvard team immediately recognized that they had stumbled upon much more than a curiosity. The presence of water vapor at these altitudes initiates the complex chemistry of high-altitude ozone destruction, a process previously thought to occur only over the extremely cold polar regions.

It appears that each of these superstorms affects the ozone chemistry in a large area for a week; that the effects include an increase in the rate of destruction of ozone by a hundredfold, exceeding regeneration rates by two orders of magnitude. And the thunderstorms are not only getting bigger, they are coming more often.

To review: ozone in the stratosphere shields the earth below it from the more harmful, ultraviolet wavelengths of solar radiation. If the ozone layer is weakened, living things below suffer increased rates of skin cancer, eye damage and destruction of DNA. When we learned in the 1970s that chlorine in some of our most useful products — refrigerants and aerosols — was making it to the stratosphere and acting as a catalyst in breaking down ozone and tearing holes in the layer, we banned the products. It is one of the world’s few examples of an effective response to an environmental problem.

It is not likely that we would act so responsibly today. Republican candidates for president would swear on Bibles that they do not believe in the ozone layer, and that would be that. But in any case, no such neat and discrete response to this problem as banning a single set of products is possible.

In this case, the primary cause is not chlorine (although residual amounts left in the atmosphere by our overuse of it figure in the chemistry) but global warming itself. And those who study the effects of the greenhouse pollutants tell us that the harm we have already done will take a thousand  years to play out.

Buy sunscreen.



Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Thunderstorms on Steroids Punching Holes in Ozone

  1. Solar Jim says:

    “Buy sunscreen.”

    And what is recommended for the other ten million species?

    • Tom Lewis says:


    • Leif says:

      Here in the Pacific Northwest Puget Sound area we recently received an unprecedented 24 hour thunder storm that would qualify here IMO.
      I must agree with Solar Jim as well. what about all the other life forms on the short end of the stick. Mankind needs functioning life support systems to retain a sustainable future. Stopping profits from the pollution of the commons would be a good start in my view.

      • Tom Lewis says:

        Would have been a good start, if we had done it 30 or 40 years ago.

        I have often said that when coal miners see the canary drop to the bottom of the cage and beat feet out of the mine, they are not doing so to save the canary. They are intent on their own asses, which is what we have to think about now.

        • Leif says:

          Same solution Tom, but of course not the only one. Stopping pollution profits, (carbon tax), would be quick to instigate and money would follow to the only hope which is left to humanity. A WW II effort to the Green Awakening Economy and distributed green energy to all humanity. Otherwise it looks like Toastville for the kidders…

  2. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Leif, my granddaughter who was 8 months and one week pregant and lives in N. Seattle, was home in bed when that storm broke, than so did her water. Along with 11 other girls (I call them girls because I’m old) that night. They all ended up in the hopital for the same reason. When I was there the next day the Hospital staff were all talking about the low pressure of the storm that was one of the lowest recorded in the area. And that it was the cause of the broken water in all the girls, none of which had reached term. Another very odd conseqence of storm intensity increase. They put little cards on the doors of those rooms “Storm Baby”.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I did not see that one coming.

    • Leif says:

      That reminds me of the term “son of a gun”. It originated during the early stages of maritime big guns. Captain’s wives would often travel on those vessels and difficult birth was sometimes encountered. The woman would be placed next to a large cannon and fired. The resulting pressure wave often induced the delivery. Hence, “son of a gun,” it worked!

  3. Jonathan says:

    Thunderstorms are massive producers of ozone. How can they deplete it? The bigger the storm the more ozone it makes on a nearly asymptotic curve. What about hurricanes? They are just thunderstorms writ large. Do they do damage too? This article doesnt make sense. The whole ozone panic never made sense. NASA found the hole in the ozone layer when they started measuring the ozone layer. Government scientists trying to secure funding for their departments skew their findings as bad as any corporate funded research.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I regret that you are so puzzled by events. You would be less so, if you did some reading on the subjects of a) the difference between ozone at the surface and ozone at altitude, b) the enormous differences between thunderstorms and hurricanes, c) the nature of the ozone layer — it has more than one hole, d)the difference between “government scientists” and the Harvard team quoted here. When you have done so, maybe we could have a useful discussion.

  4. KeenOn350 says:

    Please don’t buy sunscreen – that kind of ‘solution’ is exactly the problem!

    Wear a hat – wear a light shirt – both long-lived reusable products.

    Don’t buy sunscreen in plastic bottles (oil products) created from a bunch of items such as palm oil that contribute to deforestation – and the sunscreen itself is sooner or later washed off, to further contaminate our poor planet.