Dealing with Misconceptions: the ozone hole

12 Feb
2022

We come across misconceptions commonly in our daily lives, which has great impact on communication about important topics, such as climate change. Using the example of the Ozone layer, learn here about misconceptions and where they come from and help you to spot misconceptions and not fall for them!

We are under constant exposure to various concerns threatening us. Most notably, environmental concerns have taken the spotlight. We often experience these concerns every day, whether we see changes in the weather, read about it in the news, watch a movie or mention them in casual conversation. With this constant talk and discussion of environmental problems, one would hope that we all would be on the same page regarding what the truth is. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Aside from the rising presence of climate change deniers, misconceptions and misunderstandings are surprisingly common amongst people regarding varying environmental issues (Arslan et al., 2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Hebe, 2020; Papadimitriou, 2004). This tool investigates misconceptions and where they come from, focussing on a case study of the Ozone layer.

The Ozone layer

In the Earth’s stratosphere lies a thin layer of ozone. The ozone molecules are distributed far apart from each other, yet serve the critical purpose of absorbing the majority of ultraviolet radiation from the sun (NASA, 2020; Nunez, 2019). Despite us needing ultraviolet radiation to survive, if exposed in too great quantities it is harmful to life. For humans, it most notably increases our risk to skin cancer, although the radiation will damage DNA molecules within plants and animals too. Ecosystems, agriculture, and people are at greater risks with a depleting ozone layer (Nunez, 2019).

The occurring damage happening to the ozone layer gained rising attention in the 1970s and 80s (Nunez, 2019). Aside from the general depletion, ozone “holes'' have been appearing, referring to areas with even thinner ozone concentrations than elsewhere (Nunez, 2019). They are not physical holes devoid of ozone. Chemicals containing chlorine and bromine, or the more well known chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are all known to aid in the thinning of the ozone layer (NASA, 2020; Nunez, 2019). Common products like refrigerants and deodorants used to contain CFCs, although today many businesses and countries have agreed to lessen or outlaw the use of the most damaging compounds in products. As a result, the ozone layer depletion has been seen to slow down (NASA, 2020; Nunez, 2019).

Although we are making movements in the right direction regarding the ozone layer depletion, we are not in the clear. Preventative actions need to be maintained and possibly increased for the ozone layer to return to its previous state (NASA, 2020; Nunez, 2019). See figure 1 for a visual model on how the largest ozone hole above the Antarctic is hoped to recover if preventative measures continue.

Figure 1: Projected ozone levels in the past and future (Australian government, 2018)

Misconceptions about the Ozone

Varying studies across different countries have explored the misconceptions held by people about environmental concerns. Most commonly these studies have a focus on students at differing levels of education, as well as pre-service and in-service teachers (Arslan et al., 2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Hebe, 2020; Papadimitriou, 2004). Despite the studies being conducted across such large distances and different groups, the results show many consistencies. The following are some of the more common misconceptions held:

  1. The Ozone layer hole is letting in more sun rays, which heats up the Earth and is causing Global Warming (Arslan et al., 2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Papadimitriou, 2004)

Truth: The thinning ozone layer is letting through more radiation, causing different consequences but not global warming

  1. The main cause as to why the ozone layer is depleting / ozone hole is formed is due to car emissions (Arslan et al., 2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Papadimitriou, 2004)

Truth: CFCs and alternate pollutants are thinning the layer, not car emissions

  1. The ozone layer hole is one of (if not the) main cause of climate change (Arslan et al.,2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Papadimitriou, 2004)

Truth: Although indirectly linked, the ozone layer is far from a big cause of climate change.

Aside from these three examples, there were many more documented misconceptions by a significant number of students and teachers. Despite all being aware of the ozone layer itself, there was consistent confusion surrounding the function of the ozone layer, the causes of the layer depletion and the consequences of the ozone layer depletion.

As a side note, pinning all of this as misconceptions may be simplifying the situation, as there is a difference between misconception and lack of knowledge (Gungordu et al., 2017). The participants’ confidence in their answers may not be as well documented. However it is clear from the studies that guesswork took place, as occasionally answers were left blank or participants admitted to not knowing the answers (Arslan et al., 2012; Gungordu et al., 2017; Hebe, 2020; Papadimitriou, 2004). This is important to note as the origin or form of misinformation may alter how to efficiently tackle the issues. Despite this, it was made clear in various studies that a significant number of students were confident in their misconceptions.

Drawing incorrect connections

As mentioned previously, we are under constant exposure to the topics of environmental issues. Various media, our peers and other sources will throw environmental buzzwords and snippets of information at us. It may be a passing headline, comment or joke that makes us aware of a certain issue and causes us to over-generalize (Gungordu et al., 2017). As an example, another repeated misconception claimed the thinning of the ozone layer to be directly tied to the melting of ice caps (Gungordu et al., 2017; Hebe, 2020). Both thinning ice caps and the existence of an ozone layer hole is well known yet the details of the issues have shown to be often misunderstood. This misconception was assumed to be rationalized as follows (Gungordu et al.,2017):

The ozone hole is an environmental problem.

The thinning of ice caps is a consequence of our environmental problems.

Therefore, the ozone layer depletion must cause the thinning ice caps.

Another example would be the rationalization of car pollution harming the ozone layer:

The ozone layer is depleting due to human made pollution.

Cars emit pollutants dangerous to the environment.

Therefore car exhausts must damage the ozone layer.

Having a basic knowledge on the existence of polluting sources, or the existence of problems can lead people to draw false connections, giving way to these misconceptions. As one may expect, more detailed information on the mechanics and consequences of these environmental concerns are usually given through educational programmes. However, when Turkish high school and university students were questioned on the source of their environmental knowledge, many cited internet media as the biggest source next to their education (Gungordu et al., 2017). See Table 1 for the answers based on the order of first to last choice by the students.

Turkish students' responses to "Where did you get the information you have about environmental chemistry issues?" in order of first to last choice. "f" = frequency (Gungordu et al., 2017).

Misinformation in the media

There is a large amount of misinformation in internet media regarding environmental issues. This is not entirely in reference to intentional misinformation, but also based on misconceptions similar to what the subjects of the studies presented. Gungordu et al. (2017) found 37.9% of websites investigated to carry misinformation along similar lines to what students were incorrectly stating about the ozone layer. Commonly these websites merge the causes and effects of various environmental issues, for example pinning the melting ice caps on the thinning ozone layer. As mentioned and presented in Table 1, students report the internet media as a significant source to their knowledge on the topic and hence misinformation from these websites are likely to be impactful.

Influence of language

Lastly, the phrasing of information and concerns have certain impacts on us. As an example, the ozone layer being called a layer was thought to impact why some teachers would describe the ozone layer as a thick layer covering the earth, and not a thin layer of spread out ozone gas molecules in the stratosphere (Gungordu et al., 2017; Hebe, 2020). Language can have a profound impact, as the words chosen to convey a topic will also convey an image in our minds. However, this aspect to why misconceptions might arise in students and teachers is given less attention and likely is a small causing factor, if at all.

Conclusions

Despite the ozone layer being considered as somewhat of an environmental success through its gradual expected healing, this should not minimize the importance of our understanding of the topic. For the healing process to be maintained we need to continue current efforts to lessen pollutants, and likely take further measures. Therefore, misconceptions regarding the ozone layer should be minimized. As shown, people are susceptible to forming various misconceptions through their own human error, lack of knowledge or through exposure to misinformation and specific phrasing.

Combating this is a complicated task, as the cause of our misconceptions is not from a single source and is likely to vary per culture. Further research on the causes may shine light on what areas are in need of most attention in order to improve our environmental literacy, whether it be the classroom, or the spread of false information in the media.

References

Arslan, H. O., Cigdemoglu, O., & Moseley, C. (2012). A Three-Tier Diagnostic Test to AssessPre-Service Teachers’ Misconceptions about Global Warming, Greenhouse Effect, OzoneLayer Depletion, and Acid Rain. International Journal of Science Education, 34(11),1667-1686. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2012.680618

Gungordu, N., Yalcin-Celik, A., & Kilic, Z. (2017). Students’ misconceptions about the ozone layer and the effect of internet based media on it. International Electronic Journal ofEnvironmental Education , 7(1), 1-16.

Hebe, H. (2020). In–service teachers’ knowledge and misconceptions of global warming and ozone layer depletion: A case study. Journal for the Education of Gifted Young Scientists, 133-149. https://doi.org/10.17478/jegys.618491

Large, deep Antarctic ozone hole persisting into November. (2020). NASA.https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/large-deep-antarctic-ozone-hole-persisting-into-november [Accessed 11th of October 2021]

Nunez, C. (2019). The facts about ozone depletion. National Geographic.https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/ozone-depletion [Accessed 17th of October 2021]

Papadimitriou, V. (2004). Prospective primary teachers' understanding of climate change, greenhouse effect, and ozone layer depletion. Journal of Science Education andTechnology, 13(2), 299-307. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:jost.0000031268.72848.6d

Figure references

Gungordu, N., Yalcin-Celik, A., & Kilic, Z. (2017). Students’ misconceptions about the ozone layer and the effect of internet based media on it. International Electronic Journal ofEnvironmental Education , 7(1), 1-16.

The ozone layer. (2018). Australian Government: Department of the Environment and Energy.https://www.awe.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/factsheet-ozone-layer.pdf[Accessed 11th of October 2021]

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