Quantifying the impact of BOReal forest fires on Tropospheric oxidants over the Atlantic using Aircraft and Satellites (BORTAS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry


The burning of biomass (e.g., shrubs, grasslands, trees) has an ongoing role in determining the composition of Earth's surface and atmosphere, and in some regions subsequent emissions of trace gases to the atmosphere rival those from fossil fuel burning. For nearly 40 years the scientific community has studied rates of emissions of trace gases from different types of biomass and associated amospheric gaseous concentrations but our knowledge remains incomplete, reflecting the heterogeneous and stochastic nature of this Earth System process. The advent of space-borne observations of land-surface and tropospheric chemistry provided the first glimpse of the large-scale nature and impact of burning in the global troposphere. These data remain key to scaling-up detailed point- or regional-scale measurements related to burning emissions or associated atmospheric concentrations. However, Earth Observation (EO) data products are difficult to interpret without the aid of computer models of atmospheric chemistry and transport and in situ measurements. In this proposal we have assembled an integrative programme of measurements and modelling of biomass burning that encompasses ground-based and aircraft in situ data, space-borne observations of tropospheric trace gases and particles, and a hierarchy of computer models of atmospheric chemistry (detailed point models to state-of-the-art global 3-D models). Here, we focus on biomass burning over northern boreal regions, with the aircraft missions sampling outflow from North America. Our research focus is to better understand atmospheric chemistry within air masses originating from regions of biomass burning. In particular, we follow up and expand upon surprising results from a recent NERC-funded aircraft campaign (Intercontinental Transport of Ozone and Precursors, ITOP) over the North Atlantic that measured and characterised outflow from the North American boundary layer as it travelled over the North Atlantic towards Europe. During ITOP the aircraft unintentionally sampled outflow from biomass burning and found that models analysing those data were unable to reproduce the large concentrations of organic molecules and the speciation of nitrogen species. As part of this proposal we plan to fly over the North Atlantic specifically to sample outflow from North American biomass burning equipped with a more suitable suite of aircraft instruments that will help to understand and resolve this unexplained discovery in atmospheric chemistry. The resulting data will be analysed by the gold standard Master Chemical Mechanism, an explicit model description of the degradation of relevant atmospheric compounds. One of the biggest challenges that atmospheric scientists typically face is the scaling-up from detailed in situ measurements to regional and larger spatial scales. Here, we address this challenge by using global 3-D models of atmospheric chemistry and transport and data from space-borne sensors by using the model as an intermediary between the aircraft data and the relatively course satellite data. By statistically 'tuning' the model using the detailed aircraft data (data assimilation) we can better estimate the magnitude and 3-D distribution of outflow from North American biomass burning and its resulting effects on atmospheric composition over the northern hemisphere. The proposal will provide us with a better fundamental understanding of the evolving atmospheric chemistry within biomass burning, an improved understanding of how to combine data from in situ and space-borne sensors to relate detailed small-scale data to larger spatial scales, and a better quantitative understanding of the impact of boreal forest fires on the atmospheric composition of the northern hemisphere.


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Description Biomass burning is a substantial source of carcinogenic benzene to the atmosphere and this natural source needs to be factored in when national legislative limits are set for human exposure.
Exploitation Route Used to inform emerging EU policy on exposure limits for benzene
Sectors Chemicals,Environment

Description Global emissions of benzene from biomass burning have the potential to by significant in the context of setting national air quality standards. Modelling of emissions suggests that many background observatories are affected by hydrocarbons from burning sources.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services