Widespread biomass burning smoke throughout the remote troposphere


Biomass burning emits ~34–41 Tg yr−1 of smoke aerosol to the atmosphere. Biomass burning aerosol directly influences the Earth’s climate by attenuation of solar and terrestrial radiation; however, its abundance and distribution on a global scale are poorly constrained, particularly after plumes dilute into the background remote troposphere and are subject to removal by clouds and precipitation. Here we report global-scale, airborne measurements of biomass burning aerosol in the remote troposphere. Measurements were taken during four series of seasonal flights over the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean basins, each with near pole-to-pole latitude coverage. We find that biomass burning particles in the remote troposphere are dilute but ubiquitous, accounting for one-quarter of the accumulation-mode aerosol number and one-fifth of the aerosol mass. Comparing our observations with a high-resolution global aerosol model, we find that the model overestimates biomass burning aerosol mass in the remote troposphere with a mean bias of >400%, largely due to insufficient wet removal by in-cloud precipitation. After updating the model’s aerosol removal scheme we find that, on a global scale, dilute smoke contributes as much as denser plumes to biomass burning’s scattering and absorption effects on the Earth’s radiation field.

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Fig. 1: The influence of biomass burning on aerosol in the remote troposphere.
Fig. 2: Sulfate mass fraction of biomass burning particles versus smoke markers.
Fig. 3: Global-scale model–measurement comparisons of biomass burning aerosol for all ATom campaigns.
Fig. 4: GEOS/GOCART r23 biomass burning-only, clear-sky AOD for primary ATom campaign months.

Data availability

Data are publically available at https://daac.ornl.gov/ATOM/guides/ATom_merge.html and https://esrl.noaa.gov/csd/projects/atom/data.php.

Code availability

GEOS is an open-source model, and the code is available at https://gmao.gsfc.nasa.gov/GEOS_systems/.

Change history

  • 25 June 2020

    The ‘Editor recognition’ statement has been amended to additionally include the contribution of Xujia Jiang; the sentence now reads ‘Primary Handling Editors: Clare Davis; Xujia Jiang.’


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The mission as a whole was supported by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program EVS-2 funding. Participation in ATom Mission flights by G.P.S., K.D.F., C.W., C.A.B. and D.M.M. was supported by NOAA climate funding (no. NNH15AB12I). A.K. was supported by the Austrian Science Fund’s Erwin Schrodinger Fellowship (no. J-3613). R.S.H., A.J.H. and E.C.A. received support from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is a major facility sponsored by the NSF under Cooperative Agreement no. 1852977.

Author information




G.P.S., K.D.F. and D.M.M. provided PALMS data. H.B., M.C. and P.R.C. provided GEOS/GOCART results. A.K., C.W. and C.A.B. provided size distribution data. E.R. provided back-trajectory results. R.S.H., A.J.H. and E.C.A. provided TOGA data. G.P.S. wrote the paper with assistance from all authors.

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Correspondence to G. P. Schill.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Clare Davis; Xujia Jiang.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–5 and Tables 1 and 2.

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Schill, G.P., Froyd, K.D., Bian, H. et al. Widespread biomass burning smoke throughout the remote troposphere. Nat. Geosci. 13, 422–427 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0586-1

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