There's been a mysterious rise in ozone-destroying emissions

An illustration of the Earth's ozone layers and atmosphere surrounded by smoke

Banned Ozone-Harming Gas Creeps Back, Suggesting a Mystery Source

CFC-11 is an ozone-depleting chemical whose phase out agreed upon in the '80s and has been under an worldwide ban since 2010.

Something unusual is happening with a now-banned chemical that eats away at Earth's protective ozone layer: Scientists say there's more of it - not less - going into the atmosphere, and they don't know where it is coming from.

"The authors pinpoint a new source of CFC-11 to East Asia, breaking Montreal Protocol rules". The startling resurgence of the chemical, reported in Nature, will likely spark an global investigation to track down the mysterious source.

At first, the researchers hypothesised that the sudden hike in CFC-11 might be due to the destruction of old buildings containing CFC-11 refrigerants.

A bucket full of empty aerosol cans from the 1990s waiting for proper disposal
Aerosols were a common source of CFCs through the 1990s

The issue involves a gas called CFC-11, a chlorofluorocarbon that contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer.

"The newer substances that are out there, the replacements for CFC-11, might be more hard or expensive for some countries to produce or get at".

Measurements at remote sites - including the government-run Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii - of the chemical, known as CFC-11, point to East Asia as the source or renewed production.

But they concluded these sources could not explain the increase, which they calculated at about 13 billion grams per year in recent years. 'The slower decline in CFC-11 means a delay in recovery, and as CFC-11 is a strong greenhouse gas this [will also contribute] to more global warming'.

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"I hope that somehow the worldwide community can put pressure on South East Asian countries, maybe China, to go and look at whether they can get more information on where the emissions come from". 'The decline in CFC-11 is the graph that we all show in our atmospheric chemistry lectures to illustrate the effectiveness of the ban on CFCs.

Keith Weller, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, which helps implement the protocol, said the findings would be presented to the parties to the agreement for review.

Plus, it isn't just CFC-11 that was found to be increasing. "It is therefore, critical that we take stock of this science, identify the causes of these emissions and take necessary action".

"This treaty can not afford not to follow its tradition and keep its compliance record", he said.

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But in the last few years, it looks like someone has started cheating.

Overall, it is important to underscore that the ozone layer is slowly recovering and ozone-depleting substances are still declining. Nature removes 2 percent of the CFC11 out of the air each year, so concentrations of the chemical in the atmosphere are still falling, but at a slower rate because of the new emissions, Montzka said.

However, it took many decades for scientists to discover that when CFCs break down in the atmosphere, they release chlorine atoms that are able to rapidly destroy ozone molecules.

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