According to a new study, a “perfect storm” of chemicals led to the highest ever UV-B radiation reading in 2003. On Dec. 29 that year, a world-record UV index of 43.3 was detected on earth. The location was Bolivia’s Licancabur volcano.
Exactly how strong is this reading? It represents an extreme peak in radiation. In the High Andes, a mid-20s reading is more typical. An index reading of 43 is, according to lead study author Nathalie Cabrol, more similar to radiation conditions found on Mars than anywhere on earth.
The radiation-rich reading was due to several factors. Tropical sun, naturally low ozone levels, and a high elevation all contribute naturally to high UV readings in the Andes. That December, the ozone layer over the volcano was unusually thin, which led to fewer UV rays being blocked than usual. Researchers are also curious as to whether a large solar flare occurring shortly before the spike could have impacted the chemistry of the atmosphere so as to lead to the higher readings.
“The solar flare is the big question mark here,” said Cabrol in an interview with Live Science. Cabrol is currently a planetary scientist working at the SETI institute. “The major spikes in UV pretty much match exactly with this major solar activity.” She adds, though, that a lot more data is needed in order to understand whether there have been similar spikes in more recent years. They had wanted to make another visit to Licancabur, but Bolivia’s political instability has so far prevented this from happening.
The World Health Organization, for its part, warns people to stay inside when the UV index outside their homes tops 12. Higher than a reading of 12, people are exposed to levels of UV radiation that can damage the skin and eyes and potentially cause cancer. Countries like Australia and New Zealand, which experience high UV levels, have UV monitoring programs in place so that people know when to stay inside. Cabrol hopes that a similar program could be introduced to Andean countries.
“Getting good sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection is imperative, especially when spending a lot of time outdoors in bright sunlight conditions,” says Craig Anderson, CEO of The Sunglass Fix. “Sunglasses are important for all ages, UV radiation can affect children as well as adults, and cause long term health issues such as macular degeneration, and deterioration of eyesight over the years.”
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