Unknown source ramps up ozone-destroying CFC production

Image of the largest Antarctic ozone hole ever recorded, over the Southern pole

The increase in emission of CFC-11 appears unrelated to past production; this suggests unreported new production, which is inconsistent with the Montreal Protocol agreement to phase out global CFC production by 2010.

"We show that the rate of decline of atmospheric CFC-11 was constant from 2002 to 2012, and then slowed by about 50 percent after 2012", an global team of scientists concluded in a study. Recognised as an ozone depleter under the Montreal Protocol, R11 was banned along with other common CFC refrigerants R12 and R502.

The finding seems likely to prompt an worldwide investigation into the mysterious source. Samples acquired in Hawaii lead to speculation that the CFC-11 production may be happening in East Asia, but an exact source isn't clear at this time.

The slowdown in reduction of CFC-11 also has implications for the fight against climate change.

"We're raising a flag to the global community to say, 'This is what's going on, and it is taking us away from timely recovery from ozone depletion, '" said NOAA scientist Stephen Montzka, lead author of the paper, which has co-authors from CIRES, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

They considered a range of alternative explanations for the growth, such as a change in atmospheric patterns that gradually remove CFC gases in the stratosphere, an increase in the rate of demolition of buildings containing old residues of CFC-11, or accidental production.

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"The analysis of these extremely precise and accurate atmospheric measurements is an excellent example of the vigilance needed to ensure continued compliance with provisions of the Montreal Protocol and protection of the Earth's ozone layer", Fahey said.

The paper's findings are "environmentally and politically quite serious", Robert Watson, a former NASA scientist who organized bracing flights high into the Antarctic stratosphere to study ozone depletion in the 1980s, said in an emailed statement.

CFC-11 still contributes about a quarter of all chlorine - the chemical that triggers the breakdown of ozone - reaching the stratosphere.

Keith Weller, a spokesman for the U.N. Environment Program, which administers the Montreal Protocol, said the findings would have to be verified by the scientific panel to the protocol and then would be put before the treaty's member countries. If not remedied soon, however, substantial delays in ozone layer recovery could be expected, Montzka said. "It is therefore, critical that we take stock of this science, identify the causes of these emissions and take necessary action". In 2012, however, the rate of decline suddenly reduced by about 50% - indicating that new source of production had started up.

If the source of these emissions can be identified and mitigated soon, the damage to the ozone layer should be minor. However, that decrease is significantly slower than it would be without the new CFC emissions.

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