The huge gouge in the stratosphere created by years of Aqua Net hair spray and air conditioner use—also known as the ozone hole—appears to be continuing its healing process. On Thursday, NASA scientists announced the ozone hole saw it smallest peak since the world decided to do something about it in 1989. Good job, everyone.
The hole, which forms over Antarctica and peaks in austral spring, topped out at 7.6 million square miles on Sept. 11. At more than double the size of the U.S., that’s still big, but it’s well below the peak in 2000 when the hole spanned 11.6 million square miles, as well as the average extent since 1991 of 10 million miles.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s the smallest extent since the world signed the Montreal Protocol, a landmark treaty to reduce the use of chemicals that cause the hole to form. That treaty has played a role in helping rein in the ozone hole, though the relatively tiny extent this year is also due to weather. Powerful winds that run counterclockwise around Antarctica, and warmer-than-normal conditions in the stratosphere helped keep the ozone hole in check, as well.
Despite the improvements, there’s still a long road to full recovery ahead. NASA researchers don’t expect the ozone hole to fully heal until 2070. But this year’s record low is a part of a growing pile of evidence that we’re at least heading in the right direction.
The ozone hole is the quintessential ‘80s environmental problem. The ozone layer sits about 20 miles above the Earth’s surface and absorbs incoming ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without it, we’d all be dead, and the Earth’s surface would be a sterile wasteland.
Scientists became alarmed when they noticed an increasingly large hole opening up in the ozone layer over Antarctica in the 1980s. Their research in part led to one of the most successful international treaties ever signed.
The Montreal Protocol was inked in 1989 and since then, countries have been phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals commonly found in aerosol cans and refrigerants. The benefits of the treaty cannot be overstated. Its full implementation will help avert 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.6 million skin cancer deaths and 45 million cases of cataracts in the U.S. alone according to a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency report.
It also has the sneaky side benefit of helping fight climate change. A study from August found that reducing ozone-depleting chemicals from 2008-2014 had the equivalent impact of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 170 million tons per year.
The news is a reminder that not everything is terrible in 2017 (just most things), and that when the world gets its sorry ass in gear, it can actually solve problems.