Global ammonia distribution derived from infrared satellite observations

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Global ammonia emissions have more than doubled since pre-industrial times, largely owing to agricultural intensification and widespread fertilizer use1. In the atmosphere, ammonia accelerates particulate matter formation, thereby reducing air quality. When deposited in nitrogen-limited ecosystems, ammonia can act as a fertilizer. This can lead to biodiversity reductions in terrestrial ecosystems, and algal blooms in aqueous environments2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Despite its ecological significance, there are large uncertainties in the magnitude of ammonia emissions, mainly owing to a paucity of ground-based observations and a virtual absence of atmospheric measurements3,8,9,10,11. Here we use infrared spectra, obtained by the IASI/MetOp satellite, to map global ammonia concentrations from space over the course of 2008. We identify several ammonia hotspots in middle–low latitudes across the globe. In general, we find a good qualitative agreement between our satellite measurements and simulations made using a global atmospheric chemistry transport model. However, the satellite data reveal substantially higher concentrations of ammonia north of 30 N, compared with model projections. We conclude that ammonia emissions could have been significantly underestimated in the Northern Hemisphere, and suggest that satellite monitoring of ammonia from space will improve our understanding of the global nitrogen cycle.

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Figure 1: NH3 total columns retrieved with IASI over India and Pakistan.
Figure 2: Annual averaged retrieved and modelled NH3 columns, and their difference.
Figure 3: Annual averaged NH3 columns over three agricultural valleys.


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IASI has been developed and built under the responsibility of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES, France). It is flown onboard the MetOp satellites as part of the EUMETSAT Polar System. The IASI L1 data are received through the EUMETCast near-real-time data distribution service. L.C. and P.-F.C. are respectively a Scientific Research Worker (Collaborateur Scientifique) and Research Associate (Chercheur Qualifié) with F.R.S.-FNRS. C.C. is grateful to CNES for scientific collaboration and financial support. The research in Belgium was financially supported by the F.R.S.-FNRS (M.I.S. nF.4511.08), the Belgian State Federal Office for Scientific, Technical and Cultural Affairs and the European Space Agency (ESA-Prodex arrangements C90-327). Financial support by the ‘Actions de Recherche Concertées’ (Communauté Française de Belgique) is also acknowledged. We would like to thank M. Van Damme for his assistance.

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L.C. obtained the first NH3 global distributions, carried out the retrievals and the analyses, drafted the manuscript and prepared the figures. C.C. had an active role in the development of the IASI mission for the atmospheric composition aspects, and supervised the project. F.D. developed the model simulations and provided interpretation of the results. D.H. was responsible for the development of forward and inverse models. P.-F.C. made the first observations of NH3 from IASI, designed the filter and supervised the project. All authors contributed actively to the discussions of the results and preparation of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Lieven Clarisse.

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