Part F: A Closer Look at....
Ultraviolet Radiation in Our Environment
The activity we call science is one of the most popular ways of making sense out of what
our senses tell us. We usually think of science as a collection of "the sciences": physics,
chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, and so on. But outside the science departments and the
textbooks, these categories all blend together. When we try to understand nature we find that
everything is connected. Nature is usually too complicated for us to analyze from the viewpoint
of more than one of the science disciplines at a time, except at a superficial level. For this
reason, "the ozone problem" provides an uncommon opportunity to explore the physical,
chemical, geological, and biological interactions that govern the biological effects of solar
A chain of causes and effects:
Sunlight is the energy source of most life forces; life as we know it evolved because of
sunlight and depends on sunlight for its continued existence. But these life-giving forces also
have the potential for destroying life. Our biosphere is the result of a balance between these
Sunlight is delivered in small packets of energy called photons. When an ultraviolet
photon leaves the sun heading in our general direction, there is a small but real chance that it will
collide with a DNA molecule in someone's skin cell and increase the likelihood that he or she
will develop a skin cancer. The chance is small, but the number of photons is extremely large, so
thousands of people develop skin cancer every year. We can trace the journey of those photons
using the methods of "the sciences."
Ultraviolet photons are produced whenever something is heated to a high enough
temperature. This can be hydrogen on the surface of the sun or a piece of tungsten wire in a
bright light bulb. To understand this step you must explore some basic physics, which will
describe how the photons travel through space (at the speed of light, of course, because light is
made of photons). Photons from the sun must pass through the earth's atmosphere before they
can have any effect on us. This is a hazardous step for an ultraviolet photon, as there are many
ways it can be absorbed or deflected. Ozone molecules in the upper part of the atmosphere are
particularly effective in absorbing them. Dust and other small particles remove photons. The
chance of a photon making it through also depends on its energy. Ironically, the less energy it
has--down to a point--the greater its chances of getting through. To understand this you must
explore some chemistry. The photons that make it through the atmosphere run another gauntlet
in penetrating the outer layer of your skin, especially if your skin contains much natural pigment
or has been smeared with a sunscreen lotion. Most of the photons will be intercepted in their
journey, but many will reach the nucleus of one of the growing cells at the base of your skin, and
when they do it is very likely that they will damage one of the DNA molecules. Now your
exploration takes you into biology.
If DNA damage was the end of the story, we would not be here. In the early stages of
evolution of life on this planet, the atmosphere did not contain much oxygen so there was no
ozone layer. The organisms that survived and evolved all have the ability to repair the damage
that ultraviolet photons inflict on their DNA molecules. So a biochemical reaction is the final
step in determining whether a solar ultraviolet photon will increase your chance of getting skin
What is Sunlight?
Light is a form of the energy we call electromagnetic radiation. Other forms are called
radio and TV waves, microwaves, infrared (IR), ultraviolet (UV), x-rays, and gamma rays.
Physicists think of all of these
as examples of the same
phenomenon with different
energies. In some ways these
forms of energy act like waves,
so they are traditionally
described in terms of their
wavelengths. In other ways
they act like particles and then
it is more useful to describe
them in terms of their photon
energies. Since we are
interested in understanding how
they transfer their energy to
molecules, damaging the
molecules in the process, we
will use the photon energy idea.
Wavelengths are commonly
labeled in nanometers (nm),
where 1 nm = 1 10-9 meters,
and photon energies are
conveniently expressed in units
of electron volts (eV).
Having two different
ways to describe the same thing
seems confusing, but we
simplify it somewhat by using more common names for ranges of wavelengths or photon
energies. With visible light these names are the colors. In the case of ultraviolet, which we can't
see, the names are less colorful. Table 1 lists some examples of energies, wavelengths, and
common names of some of the photons we will be talking about.
Names Used for Photons of different
| Name || Energy Range(eV) || Wavelength
Range (nm) |
| Infrared || less than 1.6 || greater than 760 |
| Visible Light
|| 1.6 - 3.1 || 760 - 400|
| Red || 1.6-2.0 ||760-610|
|Ultraviolet|| greater than 3.1||less than 400|
To Learn More...
Read Describing Amounts of Work or Energy and Light and Energy.
A common way to visualize quantities that depend on the photon energy of radiation is to
plot the quantities against the energy. For visible light, this gives a picture that has the colors
lined up in the same order as they are in the rainbow or the color spectrum produced by passing
white light through a glass prism (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet). We will plot a
number of different kinds of spectra on an energy scale, but we will also label some of the
important cases as wavelengths, always keeping in mind that shorter wavelengths correspond to
higher photon energies. Figure 1 shows the spectrum of radiation from the sun that reaches the
top of our atmosphere. The number of photons of each energy falling on each square meter in
each second (irradiance) is plotted against the energy. Notice that most of the photons are in the
visible light region and that the UV makes up a small fraction of the spectrum. Figure 2 is an
expanded view of the UV region, showing the three commonly-used subdivisions, UV-A, UV-B,
and UV-C. Notice here how much more radiation exists at the low energy end of the UV (near
the visible). The upper curve in Figure 2 represents the spectrum of sunlight at the top of the
earth's atmosphere and the lower curve shows it after being filtered through the atmosphere. This
shows the dramatic effect the atmosphere--primarily the ozone--has in filtering out the most
energetic photons in the UV-B and UV-C regions.
Some important points to observe in Figure 2 are the following:
1. Only UV-A and UV-B reach the surface of the earth; the ozone layer at its
present concentration absorbs all of the UV-C.
2. The ozone also absorbs most of the UV-B, especially the more energetic photons
(those with wavelengths less than 300 nm).
3. The ozone has very little effect on the amount of UV-A that reaches the surface.
What is Ozone?
The oxygen in the atmosphere exists in three chemical forms. Most of it, but not quite
all, is O2 , which is sometimes called molecular oxygen (or more often "oh-two"). A very small
amount of oxygen in the upper part of the atmosphere exists as single oxygen atoms, O, or
atomic oxygen. At pressures found at lower altitudes, atomic oxygen reacts very rapidly to form
O2, so there isn't any O to speak of where we live. The third form, O3, with three oxygen atoms
bonded together, is ozone (or "oh-three). It is found in the upper part of the atmosphere
(stratosphere) and also in cities as a form of air pollution. The greatest concentrations of
stratospheric ozone are found at altitudes between 15 and 25 km. This ozone in the stratosphere
filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation, so it benefits all living things. Ozone in the air we
breathe still filters out some UV, but it is quite toxic to most organisms because it is very reactive
and does more harm than good.
To Learn More...
Read Stratospheric Ozone.
Figure 1: Energy spectrum of solar radiation.
Figure 2: Spectrum of ultraviolet radiation at
top of atmosphere and at the surface of earth for
300 Dobson Units of ozone.
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Last updated Friday July 11 1997