CFCs in the Ocean

I do not know (and do not wish to know) how this contraption works, I can only tell you it is used to analyze CFCs and that I am forever grateful that I am in no way responsible for its everyday operation and maintenance.

“CFCs” stands for chlorofluorocarbons which are organic compounds released to the atmosphere by industrial processes (ie. refrigerants, aerosols). In the 70’s it was discovered that CFC compounds in the upper atmosphere could break down into chlorine molecules and that the excess chlorine was destroying ozone (ozone is a gas that blocks harmful UV radiation from reaching Earth’s surface). After this discovery, CFCs were phased out and replaced with less harmful replacements, diminishing the growing hole in the stratospheric ozone layer. Because of the serious impact CFCs had on the environment, atmospheric concentrations have been monitored and a historical record as well as a computer generated prediction of future CFC concentrations exists. So how does this all tie into oceanography?

CFCs in the air diffuse into the surface ocean as a gas that is non-reactive or in other words, remains in the water indefinitely. CFCs are not toxic or harmful to the ocean in any known way but can be used as a tracer of when a water mass was last at the surface. Seawater can mix vertically and water that was once on the surface over time circulates to deeper depths. With the historical record of atmospheric CFC concentrations, scientists can calculate when a deep water mass was last at the surface by looking at the concentration of CFCs. This information is valuable to study how different periods of time may have affected the chemistry of the ocean.


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