Chemical ozone destruction occurs over both polar regions in local winter–spring. In the Antarctic, essentially complete removal of lower-stratospheric ozone currently results in an ozone hole every year, whereas in the Arctic, ozone loss is highly variable and has until now been much more limited. Here we demonstrate that chemical ozone destruction over the Arctic in early 2011 was—for the first time in the observational record—comparable to that in the Antarctic ozone hole. Unusually long-lasting cold conditions in the Arctic lower stratosphere led to persistent enhancement in ozone-destroying forms of chlorine and to unprecedented ozone loss, which exceeded 80 per cent over 18–20 kilometres altitude. Our results show that Arctic ozone holes are possible even with temperatures much milder than those in the Antarctic. We cannot at present predict when such severe Arctic ozone depletion may be matched or exceeded.