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Biogenically driven organic contribution to marine aerosol


Marine aerosol contributes significantly to the global aerosol load and consequently has an important impact on both the Earth's albedo and climate. So far, much of the focus on marine aerosol has centred on the production of aerosol from sea-salt1 and non-sea-salt sulphates2,3. Recent field experiments, however, have shown that known aerosol production processes for inorganic species cannot account for the entire aerosol mass that occurs in submicrometre sizes4,5,6. Several experimental studies have pointed to the presence of significant concentrations of organic matter in marine aerosol7,8,9,10,11. There is some information available about the composition of organic matter12,13,14, but the contribution of organic matter to marine aerosol, as a function of aerosol size, as well as its characterization as hydrophilic or hydrophobic, has been lacking. Here we measure the physical and chemical characteristics of submicrometre marine aerosol over the North Atlantic Ocean during plankton blooms progressing from spring through to autumn. We find that during bloom periods, the organic fraction dominates and contributes 63% to the submicrometre aerosol mass (about 45% is water-insoluble and about 18% water-soluble). In winter, when biological activity is at its lowest, the organic fraction decreases to 15%. Our model simulations indicate that organic matter can enhance the cloud droplet concentration by 15% to more than 100% and is therefore an important component of the aerosol–cloud–climate feedback system involving marine biota.

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Figure 1: Organic matter at the sea surface.
Figure 2: Chemical composition of marine aerosols.
Figure 3: Seasonal characteristics of aerosol microphysics.
Figure 4: Increase in CDNC due to the addition of OM.


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This work was partly supported by the European Commission (Projects QUEST and PHOENICS), Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, and the Irish Higher Education Authority, Italian Ministry of Environment (Italy–USA Cooperation on Science and Technology of Climate Change). SeaWiFS chlorophyll products were provided by the SeaWiFS project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.

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Correspondence to Maria Cristina Facchini.

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Potential contribution of coastal sources to aerosol properties at Mace Head. (DOC 295 kb)

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O'Dowd, C., Facchini, M., Cavalli, F. et al. Biogenically driven organic contribution to marine aerosol. Nature 431, 676–680 (2004).

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