Ozone levels above the Arctic reached a record low for March, NASA researchers report. An analysis of satellite observations show that ozone levels reached their lowest point on March 12 at 205 Dobson units.

While such low levels are rare, they are not unprecedented. Similar low ozone levels occurred in the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, in 1997 and 2011. In comparison, the lowest March ozone value observed in the Arctic is usually around 240 Dobson units.

“This year’s low Arctic ozone happens about once per decade,” said Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For the overall health of the ozone layer, this is concerning since Arctic ozone levels are typically high during March and April.”

Ozone is a highly reactive molecule comprised of three oxygen atoms that occurs naturally in small amounts. The stratospheric ozone layer, roughly 7 to 25 miles above Earth’s surface, is a sunscreen, absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation that can damage plants and animals and affecting people by causing cataracts, skin cancer and suppressed immune systems.

The March Arctic ozone depletion was caused by a combination of factors that arose due to unusually weak upper atmospheric “wave” events from December through March. These waves drive movements of air through the upper atmosphere akin to weather systems that we experience in the lower atmosphere, but much bigger in scale.

Read more at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center