5.3 Stratospheric photochemistry

If the solar spectral irradiance varies then, without a change composition, the spectral heating rate varies in proportion to this change. If, however – as is actually the case, the atmospheric composition also responds to solar variability then this will affect solar fluxes and heating rates in a non-linear fashion. Particularly important in this context is stratospheric ozone.

In the stratosphere the main chemical reactions determining the concentration of ozone are:

O2 + h ν → O + O
O + O2 + M → O3 + M
O3 + h ν → O2 + O
O + O3 → 2 O2
O3 + X → X O + O2
X O + O → X + O2

The first of these reactions represents the photodissociation of oxygen at wavelengths less than 242 nm. This process is the key step in ozone formation because the oxygen atoms produced react with oxygen molecules to produce ozone molecules, as depicted in the second reaction (the M represents any other air molecule whose presence is necessary to simultaneously conserve momentum and kinetic energy in the combination reaction). Because the short wavelength ultraviolet radiation gets used up as it passes through the atmosphere, concentrations of atomic oxygen increase with height. This would tend to produce a similar profile for ozone but the effect is counterbalanced by the need for a 3-body collision (reaction 2) which is more likely at higher pressures (lower altitudes). Thus a peak in ozone production occurs at around 50 km. The third reaction is the photodissociation of ozone, mainly by radiation in the Hartley band (λ < 310 nm), into one atom and one molecule of oxygen. This does not represent the fundamental destruction of the ozone because the oxygen atom produced can quickly recombine with an oxygen molecule. The fourth reaction represents the destruction of ozone by combination with an oxygen atom. The fifth and sixth reactions represent the destruction by any catalyst X, which may include OH, NO and Cl. The various destruction paths are important at different altitudes but the combined effect is an ozone concentration profile which peaks near 25 km in equatorial regions.

Because photodissociation is an essential component of ozone formation most ozone is produced at low latitudes in the upper stratosphere. Observations show, however, that it is also present in considerable quantities in the mid- and high latitude stratosphere due to transport by the mean meridional circulation. The resulting distribution of mixing ratio is shown in Figure 28View Image (upper panel). The atmospheric circulations tend to move the ozone away from its source region towards the winter pole and downwards. Indeed, the quantity of ozone above unit area of the Earth’s surface (referred to as the ozone column amount) is usually greater at mid-latitudes than the equator, see Figure 28View Image (lower panel). In the lower stratosphere its photochemical lifetime is much longer, because of the reduced penetration of the radiation which destroys it, and its distribution is determined by transport, rather than photochemical, processes. In winter high latitudes photochemical destruction essentially ceases and the ozone accumulates until the spring.

View Image

Figure 28: Above: Zonal mean concentration of ozone (ppmv) in January. Below: The annual cycle in the latitudinal distribution of zonal mean ozone column amounts. The units are 10–3 atm cm (1 atm cm = 2.69 × 1019 molecules cm–2). From Andrews (2000).

The minimum in ozone column which occurs near the south pole in spring (October) has deepened considerably during the past thirty years into what has become known as the “ozone hole”. Observations and theoretical studies have shown that the depletion occurs mainly in the lower stratosphere and is due to catalytic destruction of ozone by chlorine radicals activated on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles during the polar night. This chlorine is a product of the breakdown of anthropogenic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are now banned under international agreement. Because of the long atmospheric lifetime of CFCs, and exacerbation of the situation by colder stratospheric temperatures associated with greater CO2 concentrations, it may be several decades before the winter polar stratosphere recovers to its unperturbed state.


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