Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Improvements in air quality and Earth's climate predictions require improvements of the aerosol speciation in chemical transport models, using observational constraints. Aerosol speciation (e.g., organic aerosols, black carbon, sulfate, nitrate, ammonium, dust or sea salt) is typically determined using in situ instrumentation. Continuous, routine aerosol composition measurements from ground-based networks are not uniformly widespread over the globe. Satellites, on the other hand, can provide a maximum coverage of the horizontal and vertical atmosphere but observe aerosol optical properties (and not aerosol speciation) based on remote sensing instrumentation. Combinations of satellite-derived aerosol optical properties can inform on air mass aerosol types (AMTs). However, these AMTs are subjectively defined, might often be misclassified and are hard to relate to the critical parameters that need to be refined in models.

In this paper, we derive AMTs that are more directly related to sources and hence to speciation. They are defined, characterized and derived using simultaneous in situ gas-phase, chemical and optical instruments on the same aircraft during the Study of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds, and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS, an airborne field campaign carried out over the US during the summer of 2013). We find distinct optical signatures for AMTs such as biomass burning (from agricultural or wildfires), biogenic and polluted dust. We find that all four AMTs, studied when prescribed using mostly airborne in situ gas measurements, can be successfully extracted from a few combinations of airborne in situ aerosol optical properties (e.g., extinction Ångström exponent, absorption Ångström exponent and real refractive index). However, we find that the optically based classifications for biomass burning from agricultural fires and polluted dust include a large percentage of misclassifications that limit the usefulness of results related to those classes.

The technique and results presented in this study are suitable to develop a representative, robust and diverse source-based AMT database. This database could then be used for widespread retrievals of AMTs using existing and future remote sensing suborbital instruments/networks. Ultimately, it has the potential to provide a much broader observational aerosol dataset to evaluate chemical transport and air quality models than is currently available by direct in situ measurements. This study illustrates how essential it is to explore existing airborne datasets to bridge chemical and optical signatures of different AMTs, before the implementation of future spaceborne missions (e.g., the next generation of Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites addressing Aerosols, Cloud, Convection and Precipitation (ACCP) designated observables).


Earth Systems Research Center

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Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics



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This is an open access article published by EGU in 2022 in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, available online: