How one Nature paper in 1985 led to the discovery of the ozone hole.

How one Nature paper in 1985 led to the discovery of the ozone hole.

Nearly 35 years ago, a group of three scientists from British Antarctic Survey, BAS, Cambridge, UK, published a paper in Nature1 on large losses of total ozone in the atmosphere in the Antarctic region. Little did Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin know how their research outcomes in 1985 would turn into one of the greatest geophysical discoveries of the twentieth century, the discovery of the ozone hole1.

Figure 1. Daily values of total O3. Halley Bay (left, a): thin lines, mean and extreme values for 16 seasons, 1953-73; thick line, mean values for four seasons, 1980-84; + values for October 1984. Observing season: 1 October to 13 March. Argentine Islands (left, b): as for Halley Bay, but extreme values for 1953-73 omitted. Observing season: 1 September to 31 March. / Monthly means of total O3 at Halley Bay, and Southern Hemisphere measurements of F-11 (black dots, pptv CFCl3) and F-12 (white dots, pptv, CF2Cl2). (right, a): October, 1957-84. (right, b): February, 1958-1984. Note that F-11 and F-12 amounts increase down the figure.

The impact of their research has been unequivocally huge. As they bravely identified the breakdown products of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the cause of the ozone loss, their research accelerated further work into the detrimental role of CFCs to ozone depletion (e.g. Solomon et al., 19862). This subsequently led to negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which helped phase out CFCs by providing global regulations on the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone depleting substances. Their research helped convince scientists, the public, politicians and even the chemical industry that synthetic chemicals had driven a 40% decline in ozone levels over Antarctica in less than a decade, and to take a global and immediate action to commit to the gradual phase-out of CFCs and their replacement with environmentally less damaging compounds.

When I started my PhD at the Centre for Atmospheric Science, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, in October 2012, I was oblivious to the fact yet extremely honoured to share the office space with one of the authors of this 1985 Nature publication, Joseph Farman. When Joseph passed away in May 2013, the world gave a massive, truly deserving tribute to him and his contribution to the atmospheric science research3,4,5,6.

Legacy of Joseph Farman’s research is kept on the British Antarctic Survey website, maintained and updated by Jonathan Shanklin. Feel free to check this website to find out more about the history of the discovery of the ozone hole, and to get access to ozone bulletins, archives, data and outputs, including satellite imagery maps of total ozone and annual ozone hole animations. You can also get updated on the current state of the ozone hole and its recovery, the state of ozone depleting substances in the atmosphere, and the monitoring systems in place.

Figure 2. NASA Evaluates New Threats to Earth's Ozone Layer [Source: NASA Goddard YouTube Channel, published: 14-Dec-2017].

The latest update sounds a little bit disconcerting as observations reported in Nature8 in May 2018 showed that the rate of decline of CFC-11, an ozone depleting substance in the atmosphere, which is also a greenhouse gas, had become slower than predicted. This suggested that either something unusual was taking place in the atmosphere or that there were additional man-made emissions. The paper suggested that the most likely reason was illegal manufacture and release from somewhere in eastern Asia.8 Investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency has found that production of polyurethene foam in China can explain the observed changes. They have encouraged the Chinese government to take immediate action. This became news again in May 2019 when another paper was published in Nature10, 7. The Chinese government, in the most recent development, is planning to build a monitoring network in the wake of the Rigby 2019 study that attributed a bespoke spike in CFC-11 to two Chinese provinces11

The 1985 article in Nature1 by Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin is free to access through Nature’s interactive table of elements12 (Element: Oxygen), part of #IYPT201913.


  1. Farman J., Gardiner B., Shanklin J., (1985), “Large losses of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal ClOx/NOx interaction”, Nature, 315, 207-210, DOI.
  2. Solomon S., Garcia R., Rowland F., Wuebbles D., (1986), ”On the depletion of Antarctic ozone”, Nature, 321, 755-758, DOI.
  3. Pyle J., Harris N., (2013), “Joe Farman (1930-2013)”, Nature, 498, 435, DOI.
  8. Montzka S., Dutton G., Yu P., et al., (2018), "An unexpected and persistent increase in global emissions of ozone-depleting CFC-11", Nature, 557, 413-417, DOI.   
  10. Rigby M., Park S., Saito T., et al., (2019), "Increase in CFC-11 emissions from eastern China based on atmospheric observations", Nature, 569, 546-550, DOI.

Poster image: Ozone Hole Formation Over South Pole Observed by NASA AIRS, NASA ID: PIA20664

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