Record low temperatures over the Arctic are thinning the protective ozone layer and could affect human health in some parts of the EU, the European Commission has warned. European scientists from the EU-funded project SCOUT- 03 have found that overall temperatures in the high atmosphere are the lowest for 50 years, and warn that destruction of the protective ozone layer is substantially increased under very cold conditions. This could not only affect biodiversity, but also increase the risk of skin cancer in Scandinavia and even central European nations. 'The Arctic has experienced an extremely harsh winter. The first signs of ozone loss have now been observed, and large ozone losses are expected to occur if the cold conditions persist,' said European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik. The Scout-03 Integrated Project, which brings together 59 partner institutions from 19 countries, is being financed under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to study the links between stratospheric ozone and climate change in the Arctic. The aim of the project is to predict future development of the ozone layer in global climate models. The ozone layer is located in the stratosphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere, and its function is to protect the Earth's surface from harmful solar UV radiation. Scientists working on the Scout-03 project say that the exceptionally cold conditions and the unusual large numbers of polar clouds have altered the chemistry of the ozone layer and are hastening the rate at which man-made chemicals are destroying ozone. It is expected that when spring sunlight returns in the coming weeks, it will lead to further depletion of the ozone layer. At present, the area where the ozone layer is particularly thin is constrained by winds, which isolate the Arctic from the rest of the global climate system. The SCOUT- 03 partners believe this barrier will break down and the low ozone area will spread southwards over northern Europe. A hole in the ozone layer will mean more UV harmful radiation reaching ground level, potentially increasing the risk of skin cancer. 'The meteorological conditions we are now witnessing resemble and even surpass the harsh conditions of the 1999/2000 winter - when the worst ozone loss to date was observed,' said Neil Harris from the European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Overall, explains the Commission, a decrease in total ozone in the Arctic region has been observed since 1980, although there is a considerable year-to-year variation in the observed values. 'This variability in the ozone loss is to be contrasted with the Antarctic, where nearly complete ozone loss has taken place in almost all winters since the late 1980s. This difference is linked to the Arctic warmer winter conditions. The concern is that the Arctic appears to be moving into Antarctic-like conditions which will result in an increase in UV radiation levels that will have consequences on human health in northern hemisphere countries,' concludes the Commission.