Modern Wildfires And Their Effect On The Ozone Layer

The ozone layer is a precious thing, helping protect the Earth from the harshest of the sun’s radiative output. If anything were to damage this layer, we’d all feel the results in a very short order indeed.

In the past, humanity has worked to limit damage to the ozone layer from our own intentional actions. However, it’s not just aerosol cans and damaged air conditioning systems that are putting it at risk these days. The fierce wildfires we’ve seen so much of in recent years are also having a negative effect. Let’s take a look at why the ozone layer matters, and how it’s being affected by these wildfires.

A Protective Blanket

NASA modelling shows that the hole in the ozone layer would have covered the entire Earth by 2060 if CFC production had not been outlawed by the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s. Credit: NASA, public domain

The fusion reactor that we call the Sun is a vicious thing. As it collides hydrogen atoms, mashing them together into helium, it releases a great deal of heat, light, and other electromagnetic radiation. Much of this radiation can be harmful to humans, plants, and other organisms.

Thankfully, the Earth has the ozone layer for protection. It’s a part of the atmosphere, or the stratosphere to be precise, that has a higher concentration of ozone than the rest of the atmosphere. The difference is actually quite slight – the ozone layer features the triple-atom oxygen molecule at a level of 10 parts per million (ppm), versus the level of 0.3 ppm seen on average in the rest of the atmosphere.

Those ten ozone molecules out of every million do an important job: blocking around 97-99% of the sun’s medium-frequency ultraviolet radiation. Without the ozone layer in place, we’d all sunburn far more quickly. In fact, if it was gone entirely, plants would struggle to photosynthesize, food supplies would dry up, and the surface of the Earth would essentially be sterilized in short order

The ozone layer is delicate, however. A wide variety of man-made chemicals, primarily CFCs, can break down ozone molecules, and have led to the commonly-known hole in the ozone layer which is still present to this day. Due to the crucial protective nature of the ozone layer, much work has gone into restricting the use of these chemicals and other measures to protect the ozone layer’s existence.

The Effect of Wildfires

The Australian bushfire season of 2019-2020 was so fierce and widespread that even downtown city areas like the Sydney CBD were shrouded in smoke. Credit: VirtualWolf, CC-BY-SA-2.0

The largest wildfires burn with such heat and intensity that they create huge plumes of smoke that can reach immense heights, even lofting smoke particles and combustion byproducts into the stratosphere. It’s a simple result of the fact that hot gases tend to rise up, and wildfires create plenty of those.

New research has now shown that these compounds can actually change the composition of gases in the upper atmosphere, and potentially even destroy ozone in this atmospheric layer.  Scientists used the infrared spectrometer on the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment, a mission running on Canadian satellite SCISAT, to investigate the issue in the wake of Australia’s tragic 2019/2020 “Black Summer” fires.

Taking spectral measurements of the smoke particles in the upper atmosphere, it became clear that the particles contained oxygenated organic molecules, which could undergo chemical reactions with other molecules in the stratosphere. Further measurements noted increases in levels of molecules like formaldehyde, chlorine nitrate, chlorine monoxide, and hypochlorous acid. In turn, decreases in ozone levels were detected, as well as a drop in levels of nitrogen dioxide and hydrochloric acid.

Smoke columns stretched high into the atmosphere due to the huge scale and intensity of the bushfires. Credit: Helitak430, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Such major perturbations in the atmospheric chemistry being studied had not been observed in the previous 15 years of satellite measurements. There was a small initial bump to ozone levels after the wildfires, suspected to be due to similar reactions that create ozone pollution at ground level. However, from April to December 2020, ozone levels dropped precipitously to below the averages seen from 2005 to 2019.

Realistically, there’s not a lot that can be done to rectify this problem directly. Wildfires are already fought by those on the ground to protect life and limb, as well as property. Putting them out quicker would help, but fire crews are already doing everything they can in such cases.

It’s not all bad news for the ozone layer, however. Since the Montreal Protocol outlawed most production of CFC gases that harmed the ozone layer, we’ve seen gradual recovery from earlier human-induced damage. Despite recent spikes, the hole in the ozone layer is expected to close up within the next 50 years or so. In fact,when NASA checked in 2019, the hole in the ozone layer was the smallest its been since 1982. However, if major wildfires continue to occur with increasing severity, we may be in for more trouble.

In the end, reducing carbon emissions, and halting the pace of climate change is the best thing we can do to tackle this problem. Reducing global temperatures should help reduce the occurrence of wildfires, and their severity, and thus less smoke will be lofted into the upper atmosphere where it’s causing such a stir.

Headline image from the ESA’s Sentinel-2 satellite. ESA, Copernicus EMS via Twitter

36 thoughts on “Modern Wildfires And Their Effect On The Ozone Layer

  1. One thing, for “a long time” forest fires were seen as abad thing.

    But my ancestors, and the distant cousins today, did controlled burns in the Pacific Northwest. Not to burn trees, but get rid of debris. Apparently thedebris makes it easy for wild fires to happen.

    With the fires in BC last summer, “global warming”, there were articles about bringing backthis practice. It rejuvenates, as long as it’s controlled.

    1. Depending on where in the world some of these deliberate controlled burns were needed to get any new trees as in some places the dominant tree species seeds only germinate after a fire event anyway.

      Worth point out though that forest fires are generally a bad thing, at least in the way they are happening now with the longer harsher droughts and higher frequency of fires in an area – that doesn’t allow the regrowth after a fire to get far enough to seed the next generations, so there isn’t that massive spring back recovery there should have been.

  2. A few big Tesla coils and you’ll soon have plenty of ozone. Then people will say we have too much and they’ll need to put something else into the atmosphere. Who knows, maybe we’ll have freeze distillation plants to fraction off unwanted gasses.

    1. Ground level ozone is a pollutant.

      Stratospheric ozone is formed by sunlight (UV) hitting O2. Which is why ‘holes’ form in the artic/antarctic in winter, when there is no light.

      The earth won’t run out, the worst we did was disturb the equilibrium, resulting in lower ozone levels.

  3. I wonder how the ancient world ever survived :) . Now even wildfires are bad (they were good according to science). Then also need to plug the volcanoes with a cork too as they are ‘bad’. Even natural breathing is bad. Natural coal is bad. Natural gas is bad. Animal gas is bad. What next shoe will drop that is bad for the Earth…. Earth warms and it cools, and is warms and it cools… So it goes and life goes on as usual .

    1. That’s what I was thinking. Wild fires are natural. You shouldn’t call them “bad”. Perhaps they are bad for the what humans in the areas want in the area. In which case accept we just decide we is good and bad for the area.

      1. In a great many areas they are bad, and not really natural – we are seeing wild fires in places that historically never seem to have burned now – so really just very irregularly that the plantlife isn’t adapted to being burnt a few times in a century.

        And even in the areas they were once good, right now they are bad, as many of the places that fire is a natural part of the life cycle have already burnt too recently to take another one…

        1. I get it, the environment and natural cycles should stay the same forever or it is bad. You didn’t explain why they are bad just stated that they are. Even without human influence the world has and would continue to change, many of those changes have been bad.

          1. They are bad right now because they are happening unnaturally often, and with greater severity – the natural world takes a very very long time to adapt to changing conditions – can’t breed a more x resilient tree naturally in anything under a few centuries as many trees won’t even produce offspring for 40+ years, so to selective keep the more succesful and breed that mutation in more widely will take 200+ years – so fires roiling through 3 times in 50 years, and burning much much larger areas rather than the historic norm of something like 1-2 in a century, and burning only 1/4-1/2 as much…

            Change is entirely natural, but it has to come at a natural pace, at least if we wish to keep the planet approaching inhabitable for us, and all our many food plants and animals – Or perhaps you want us to do to ourselves what misfortune did to the Dino’s?

          2. Oh and they are also happening in places they shouldn’t happen naturally, and wouldn’t happen if we hadn’t buggered up the natural world so comprehensively.

      2. Say that we use 40% of natural resources, and that crossing 100% would cause a disaster like raining liquid hot magma [1].

        If that is 40%±10: depending on various events (like wildfires, pandemics, geopolitics): easy peasy.

        If that is 40%±35: sometimes 5% we kick arses [2], sometimes… 75% whoops what’s happening?

        So if we get closer to 60%, we might want to know if it is 60%±10 or ±40.
        It might be why there is such a close eye on wildfires, arctic ice melting [3], desertification… and all these things that get what is bad even worse.

        Yup! Definitely nice to have people keep an eye of all of these…

        P.S.: The percentages are picked randomly just to explain.


  4. The bush fires in Australia in the last decade are not noteworthy when actually compared to historical records (Yay science!), in fact the entire phenomena there is “normal” and cyclic to the extent that the ecosystem is genetically adapted to it and benefits from it. It isn’t just the plants that are well adapted, consider the fascinating and bizarre life of the Australian Fire-beetle – Merimna Atrata. What influence fire in Australia has on global conditions is debatable, but the fact that it has been doing it for millions of years, and tens of thousands of years in it current mode (since humans entered the continent and started systematically burning the landscape), cannot be denied.

  5. The bug is not we have wildfires. It’s about there is a growing number of it, as the planet warms up. The moderate climate as we are used to know won’t come back before thousands years. (That’s the time needed to remove any additional green effect gas in the atmosphere from now.) An harmless example is our children that will never see the same blue sky as some of us remember from our childhood. It’s over for historical times. So, since it will never get any better, it’s wise to figure out how it will get worse. We should trust people who do just that.

    It is normal to reject what we don’t understand. That’s why decisions should never be in the hand of people poorly educated. That’s why mentally retarded peolple should never become President… In History, there are times for wisers and times for warriors. It is still possible to avoid a darker era but the window gets smaller everyday. Trust science, not opinions !

    1. I don’t necessarily believe wildfires are “worse”. It is only in the last few hundred years that humans attempted to control or extinguish wildfires. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes in the past could have burned until they ran out of fuel or weather conditions put them out. Most likely far larger and far longer than they are today. The earth in its history has been both far hotter and far colder than it is today.

      In our great wisdom we were worried about ice ages in the 1970s and we could not figure out that the giant sequoia trees were not reproducing until we found out that it takes a fire to get them to regenerate. I am not saying we should not be doing all we can to eliminate polution of all sorts, but we need to be careful about what we assume is happening given our track record of being completely wrong.

  6. Excellent article. After the general starvation, there will be wars, then UV radiations. That’s the future for our kids (and their kids) if we continue that way. Or we accept to suffer from a drastic change in our ways or our we suffer from considerably worse (especially our chidren, they gonna have a real taste of it!).
    Denial is ok when nothing happens; it is actually an acceptable way to live for most of us. But when the house is burning, denial becomes a morbid behaviour. It ok to be morbid for ourselves. It’s a crime in regard of our children.

    1. When I was in school in the 60s and 70s, we and our children were going to die from nuclear war (followed by nuclear winter) because the US had nuclear weapons. We were also told to eat all our dinner, because there were people starving in China/India/Biafra. Population growth would soon make us all starve. Pollution would kill us.

      These days I’m just an old fart with the benefit of having read a lot of history (and an engineering degree). A bunch of (I hope well-meaning) school kids are telling me the future will be horrible if I don’t jump to do every half-assed idea they think will save the world, as they type from the coffee shop before they drive home in their electric vehicle with the bumper stickers showing how enlightened they are. Where does the electricity and the batteries come from? MAGIC!

      If you yourself care about the future, then don’t tell ME what to do, do it yourself, and figure out how to help other people feed and clothe their children sustainably. Not like the current crop of politicians convinced that somebody who baked a pie has to give it to the politicians to distribute. Sustainability isn’t an instant action, it takes time and effort, and a lot of actual science. And people who will take the time to learn, and to pay the extra for a genuinely sustainable product, not something with green ink on the packaging and the label “natural” or “organic”.

    1. “The Government”??? LOL! At >> 100 million/yr since the early 60s-plus an otherwise welcomed decline in the average human death rate-over population is THE hottest fuel driving climate change. But THAT’s the primary capitalist tool that NO politician and all too few municipal planners and even most so-called “progressive” environmentalists (e.g Sierra Club) have ever dared to expose and submit to intelligent, impartial and continual public dialogue.

      1. There is an obvious solution to overpopulation. Stalin understood it. I’ll submit to it right after you do.

        I suggest you read about some guy named Malthus, and his worries about overpopulation. Read about the governmental response to the Irish potato famine, Then take a look at the rice terraces in Japan, China, the Phillipines (made, not by governments, but by individuals choosing to work for their own better good). Meanwhile, I will plant a garden and grow some rabbits, share them with my neighbor and the local food pantry.

        1. You’re really way off topic here. The discussion is what are the primary forces driving more frequent, larger and longer lasting wildfire events, which, of course is climate change. And yes, soaring population growth is a leading if not the main impetus of climate change. My understanding of Stalin is that he was a mass murdering monster. And total population size was much too small to cause global warming of much consequence during the time of Malthus. I advocate voluntary but enlightened zero population growth-BUT with certain stipulations. First is open and frequent dialogue over mainstream media outlets to demystify this taboo subject-though which certainly was NOT taboo throughout the late 60s and early 70s, and was even a frequent topic on talk shows and documentaries produced by PBS and the three TV networks. Second, the end goal is for informed single or a married people to then know why they should reproduce only once their own number-AND then have zero kids if they later remarry or otherwise pair up. Fair and sensible.

      1. More like what’s left of nature by then, as long before humans self-destruct or flee the planet, courtesy of eco-idiot Musk and his NASA cohorts, countless plant and animals species will be wiped out by human-driven climate change and deforestation. The fact is that most people are too indifferent and self-involved to ever live child free, change their rate of consumption and other major heat and CO2 emitting behaviors-not that public or private entities have ever been serious about attempting to re-educate them. After all, leading “non profit” but corporate led think tanks and social orgs and elected law makers they support have deliberately socialized humanity to reproduce and shop til they drop as much as possible and no matter what. So if humanity ever gets serious about what it really takes to meaningfully decelerate climate change it won’t be until the effects have reached near cataclysmic proportions. In any case, there’s certainly no undo button for incredibly stupid and deadly mistakes most (but not all) humans have made.

  7. The way our growing population treats water resources is much to blame here. If we would manage water better and make sure that areas that are now dry aren’t DRIED BY US, we can go a long way to arresting the severity of forest fires. this applies globally, not just in my home country of the USA.

    California sits next to an ocean, consumes all the fresh water it can (including selling rights to companies that bottle it and sell it to the populace), and wonders why they have drought issues. They used it up!!! They waste it in amounts that boggle the mind. When I see GIGATONS of water going down spillways to dump into the Pacific, instead of being redirected to fill reservoirs I want to clobber the idiots who live there and wonder WHY??

    We can fix this with energy. Gen IV Nuclear, solar, wind, all things that could allow California and other water starved areas near an ocean to desalinate much of their water needs and let NATURE recover.

    But follow the almighty dollar, it’s better to blame greenhouse gasses than recognize that dry plants burn way faster than ones that have an ample water supply. It’s better to allow industry to use water with impunity and take campaign contributions than actually FIX the problem.

    Forest fires are natural, but the rate at which they are occurring is not. We did that. We do that every time we allow inane policy to squander fresh water sources.

    I hope we figure this out. Electric cars ain’t the fix kiddies. Giving the planet back what it needs to heal IS. If we could get the forests to flourish again, we could put a serious dent in CO2 levels and stop with all these “technologies” that fix the problem (carbon storage?? Unless it’s in carbonated rocks it’s a sick joke). The planet fixed it over billions of years, we should take note of how it is done by the pro….our planet, not US.

    1. I think the one thing you advocate that actually holds water (!) is perhaps some system of water pipelines. But not only from CA but also from WA (as OR, ID, MT and even BC and Alberta are having record wildfire events). AZ also has access to a gulf shared by CA and/or Mexico. And as much as i am opposed to all of the numerous nuclear plants in almost every state, maybe they can be tapped to power the pumps to draw the water along these pipelines. OTOH, that’s really just another deadly stupid solution since shit for brains humans have yet to STOP and find any means for recycling or neutralizing spent nuclear material-they just keep filling up New Mexico with all the nation’s nuclear waste. Meanwhile, they’re no where near perfecting any safe and viable alternative energy source. In any case, just because everyone on this thread will likely be dust before it happens, zero population growth and reduced consumption are both fundamental for decelerating climate change. As for “getting the forests to flourish again”-LOL! Are you seriously that unaware of the rate of global deforestation, whether it be for timber, mining or-needless to say-housing for the BILLION more humans dumped on this raped, dying and hazardous planet every decade since the early 60s??

      1. You don’t need to go nearly that far.

        The LA river flows enough fresh water for the entire LA area, every rainy season.
        The Sacramento river delta? In wet season? All the water anybody wants. Got to leave enough to flush the bay out, not no limit.
        LA wants to pump the delta like a dirty dirty girl in the dry season. That never ends well. Hence 40 year ongoing legal entanglement.

        The problem is there is no place to store wet season water. They could find the power to pump it uphill, if they had a place to store it. They get most of the power back, just in summer, when electricity is expensive.

        They are thinking about damming up some dry valleys. But no motion in 20 years I’ve been paying attention. IIRC they started an environmental impact study, decades ago. I assume they found a toad…possibly licked it.

        My point is: you don’t have to desalinate or move water for thousands of miles, just store it for six months. Most places, CA is example, Phoenix can build fireproof. If snowmelt goes way down, bet they start pumping water into Shasta every wet season.

        Are you aware that developed nations are reforesting rapidly? e.g. East coast USA, Japan, Germany, France, England. Rich people love trees…depends on how you define ‘forest’…they are certainly re-treeing rapidly.
        So develop remaining world, where possible. Chinese environmentalism is already starting, nobody wants babies with 3 eyes. Everybody has troubles though. I wonder if Shanghai tap water is more drinkable now? Would make recent lockdown even worse. I’ve had Chinese coworkers warn me off a brand of Chinese beer (not Tsingtao, only saw once at BevMo) ‘It’s made in Shanghai, with City water. It will give you cancer.’ It was terrible, worse than Weideman’s. Didn’t finish the one.

        1. What you say about the LA River and its water supplying capacities may be true. But I’m from Long Island and I can sadly inform you that NO where on this miserably overpopulated island (where another 18,000 have recently arrived) or elsewhere in NY state is there any kind of “reforesting”. Indeed, there is NOTHING but the opposite happening anywhere and everywhere in the Northeast, again thanks to over immigration and the usual societal and personal pressures which induces reproduction and consumerism. Since I was a kid there was this stunning expanse of acreage on the north side of Jericho Turnpike that I’d lovingly glance at every day to and from my commute. But as of last year someone built what looks like a horribly enormous church on it and a row of mansions along the rear of it. It makes me so sick I have to cover my right eye as I past it while driving to work every morning. Then earlier last year when I needed some new dress clothes my sister and I took Jericho Turnpike east to Rte 110 to the Whitman mall, because the crime and choking tons of people at Roosevelt Field are so disgusting. When we drove along that section of Jericho, which was forever lined with lush wooded areas, I was horrified by dozens of acres cleared and excavated for countless rows of luxury co-op apartments. AND you actually think atrocities like this aren’t happening everywhere on the east coast-and inland-from NY clear down to FL??

          NEWS FLASH: “Reforesting” canNOT happen on land occupied by buildings or paved roads-and ever more of same are an inevitable consequence of population growth.

  8. They won’t post my original comment for some reason.

    For the record, this isn’t about anything other than our poor use of water resources.

    We’re making the forests dry. Fix that and a lot of the man-made environmental problems get easier to manage.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.