Boundary layer nucleation as a source of new CCN in savannah environment
The South African savannah region is a complex environment of air pollution and natural emissions influenced by a strong seasonal cycle in biomass burning and strong precipitation. However, the scarcity of long-term observations means that the knowledge of controlling aerosol processes in this environment is limited. Here we use a recent dataset of 18 months of aerosol size distribution observations trying to understand the annual cycle of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN).
Our observations show that the concentration of CCN-sized particles remains, in line with previous studies, high throughout the year with the highest concentrations during the dry winter and the lowest during the wet summer. During the wet season with reduced anthropogenic and biomass burning primary emissions, this pool of CCN is partly filled by boundary layer nucleation with subsequent growth. The enhanced importance of formation and growth during the wet season is addressed to increased biogenic activity together with enhanced free tropospheric removal decreasing the concentration of pre-existing CCN. During the dry season, while frequent new particle formation takes place, particle growth is reduced due to reduced condensing vapour concentrations. Thus in the dry season particles are not able to grow to sizes where they may act as CCN nearly as efficiently as during the wet season.
The observations are compared to simulations by a global aerosol model GLOMAP. To our surprise, the global aerosol model utilized to explain the observations was not capable of re-producing the characteristics of particle formation and the annual CCN cycle, despite earlier good performance in predicting the particle concentrations in a number of diverse environments, including the South African savannah region. While the average yearly CCN concentrations of modelled CCN is close to observed concentrations, the characteristics of nucleation bursts and subsequent growth are not captured satisfactory by the model. Our sensitivity tests using different nucleation parameterizations and condensing organic vapour production rates show that neither of these is likely to explain the differences between observed and modelled nucleation and growth rates.
A sensitivity study varying 28 modelling parameters indicates that the main uncertainties in the result are due to uncertainties in biomass burning emissions during the dry season, and anthropogenic sulphur emissions during the wet season, both in terms or emitted mass and particle sizes. The uncertainties appear to be mostly related to uncertainties in primary particle emissions, including the emissions variability not captured by monthly emission inventories. The results of this paper also highlights the fact that deficiencies in emissions estimates may result in deficiencies in particle production fluxes, while the end product such as modelled CCN concentration may be in line with observations.