A gap in the ozone layer significantly expanded, the nation’s civilian space agency said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed the layer protecting Earth from harmful solar radiation severely depleted on Oct.29.

The ozone hole above Antarctica is the biggest it has ever been at 9.6 million square miles (24.8 million square kilometers)–about the size of North America. Live Science reported the hole grew for a record 13th time since 1979.

Three satellites Aura, Suomi-NPP, and NOAA-20, which monitor ozone depletion made the discovery.

NASA predicts the hole will shrink slower this year due to cooler winter and various climate change theories. Each year the Antarctic ozone hole begins healing sometime in mid-October.

The hole is in Earth’s stratosphere, between 7 and 25 miles (11 to 40 kilometers) above sea level. It forms when ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacts with the Earth’s oxygen particles, protecting everyone from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Ozone depletion slows when upper stratosphere temperatures increase during late spring in the southern hemisphere. This weakens and eventually breaks down the polar vortex. Ozone levels usually return to normal by December.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol limits ozone-depleting substances. At least 50 countries have supported the measure.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center believes the ozone hole would be up to 1.5 million square miles (or nearly 4 million square kilometers) wide, if the protocol did not exist.

“This is a large ozone hole because of the colder than average 2021 stratospheric conditions and, without a Montreal Protocol, it would have been much larger,” earth sciences chief scientist Paul Newman said in a statement.

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