Laughing Gas No Laughing Matter; Nitrous Oxide Threatens The Ozone Layer

The United Nations Environmental Programme explains that nitrous oxide threatens the ozone layer's progress

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on November 24, 2013 12:29 PM EST

Soil Science @ NC State

Soil Science @ NC State

A new United Nations report states that nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, poses an growing risk to the ozone layer.

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Although climate change tends to get the bulk of our atmospheric attention today, back in the 80s the ozone layer was the focus our environmental ire. The ozone layer, a delicate layer of atmosphere comprised ozone (O3), has a powerful job: trapping most of the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation making life on Earth possible.

Yes, we need some ultraviolet light. After all, UV light it is what enables photosynthesis to occur in plants, and vitamin D metabolization to occur in humans. Too much UV radiation, however, would break apart the planet's water apart into its component elements — hydrogen and oxygen — enabling the hydrogen to escape as gas into space. Without hydrogen to bond with oxygen there would be no water, and thus no life.

NOAA
NOAA

In the 80s scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a class of chemicals, were causing the ozone layer to thin to dangerous levels. These chemicals were once ubiquitous, present hairspray, air conditioners, and refrigerators. In 1987, however, a global commitment called the Montreal Protocol, in conjunction with the rise of cost-effective alternatives, lead to the phasing out of these chemicals. Later, the ozone began to recover, particularly in the thinning layer over the Arctic. 

The latest United Nations report recognizes a growing body of evidence showing that nitrous oxide can threaten that recovery. A 2009 study by the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory states that nitrous oxide emissions from human activities are more than twice as high as the next leading ozone-depleting gas. Nitrous oxide is byproduct of soil fertilization, and is also emitted from livestock manure, sewage treatment, combustion, specific industrial processes, and, of course, is used as laughing gas in dental applications. Though stable at ground level, but as it reaches the stratosphere nitrous oxide breaks down into nitrogen oxides, which trigger ozone-destroying reactions.

Nitrous oxide is also designated as a "Cinderella" gas. Cinderella gases are several greenhouse gas agents which contribute to atmospheric climate change. Like the fairy tale character, Cinderella gas contributions tend to go unnoticed. Despite representing a relatively small proportion of our total greenhouse gas emissions (around 5-6 percent), nitrous oxide is particularly problematic because molecules can linger in the atmosphere for 120 years before being destroyed.

"Nitrous oxide makes up only 6 percent of the greenhouse gases but in terms of CO2, it is the equivalent to emitting three [billion ton] a year," said Dr. Joseph Alcamo, UNEP's chief scientist  at a news conference in Warsaw. "This is about 50 percent of the total amount of emissions from every vehicle in the world."

Reduced application of nitrogen-based fertilizers along with better timing on those applications, to improve uptake by could significantly cut down on nitrogen oxide emissions.

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