Large-scale particulate air pollution and chemical fingerprint of volcanic sulfate aerosols from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun flood lava eruption of Bárðarbunga volcano (Iceland)
Volcanic sulfate aerosols play a key role in air quality and climate. However, the rate of oxidation of sulfur dioxide (SO2) precursor gas to sulfate aerosols (SO42-) in volcanic plumes is poorly known, especially in the troposphere. Here we determine the chemical speciation as well as the intensity and temporal persistence of the impact on air quality of sulfate aerosols from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun flood lava eruption of Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga. To do so, we jointly analyse a set of SO2 observations from satellite (OMPS and IASI) and ground-level measurements from air quality monitoring stations together with high temporal resolution mass spectrometry measurements of an Aerosol Chemical Speciation Monitor (ACSM) performed far from the volcanic source. We explore month/year long ACSM data in France from stations in contrasting environments, close and far from industrial sulfur-rich activities. We demonstrate that volcanic sulfate aerosols exhibit a distinct chemical signature in urban/rural conditions, with NO3:SO4 mass concentration ratios lower than for non-volcanic background aerosols. These results are supported by thermodynamic simulations of aerosol composition, using the ISORROPIA II model, which show that ammonium sulfate aerosols are preferentially formed at a high concentration of sulfate, leading to a decrease in the production of particulate ammonium nitrate. Such a chemical signature is however more difficult to identify at heavily polluted industrial sites due to a high level of background noise in sulfur. Nevertheless, aged volcanic sulfates can be distinguished from freshly emitted industrial sulfates according to their contrasting degree of anion neutralization. Combining AERONET (AErosol RObotic NETwork) sunphotometric data with ACSM observations, we also show a long persistence over weeks of pollution in volcanic sulfate aerosols, while SO2 pollution disappears in a few days at most. Finally, gathering 6-month long datasets from 27 sulfur monitoring stations of the EMEP (European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme) network allows us to demonstrate a much broader large-scale European pollution, in both SO2 and SO4, associated with the Holuhraun eruption, from Scandinavia to France. While widespread SO2 anomalies, with ground-level mass concentrations far exceeding background values, almost entirely result from the volcanic source, the origin of sulfate aerosols is more complex. Using a multi-site concentration-weighted trajectory analysis, emissions from the Holuhraun eruption are shown to be one of the main sources of SO4 at all EMEP sites across Europe and can be distinguished from anthropogenic emissions from eastern Europe but also from Great Britain. A wide variability in SO2:SO4 mass concentration ratios, ranging from 0.8 to 8.0, is shown at several stations geographically dispersed at thousands of kilometres from the eruption site. Despite this apparent spatial complexity, we demonstrate that these mass oxidation ratios can be explained by a simple linear dependency on the age of the plume, with a SO2-to-SO4 oxidation rate of 0.23 h−1. Most current studies generally focus on SO2, an unambiguous and more readily measured marker of the volcanic plume. However, the long persistence of the chemical fingerprint of volcanic sulfate aerosols at continental scale, as shown for the Holuhraun eruption here, casts light on the impact of tropospheric eruptions and passive degassing activities on air quality, health, atmospheric chemistry and climate.