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Atmospheric particulate matter plays an important role in the Earth’s radiative balance. Over the past two decades, it has been established that a portion of particulate matter, black carbon, absorbs significant amounts of light and exerts a warming effect rivalling that of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, Most climate models treat black carbon as the sole light-absorbing carbonaceous particulate. However, some organic aerosols, dubbed brown carbon and mainly associated with biomass burning emissions, also absorbs light. Unlike black carbon, whose light absorption properties are well understood, brown carbon comprises a wide range of poorly characterized compounds that exhibit highly variable absorptivities, with reported values spanning two orders of magnitude. Here we present smog chamber experiments to characterize the effective absorptivity of organic aerosol from biomass burning under a range of conditions. We show that brown carbon in emissions from biomass burning is associated mostly with organic compounds of extremely low volatility. In addition, we find that the effective absorptivity of organic aerosol in biomass burning emissions can be parameterized as a function of the ratio of black carbon to organic aerosol, indicating that aerosol absorptivity depends largely on burn conditions, not fuel type. We conclude that brown carbon from biomass burning can be an important factor in aerosol radiative forcing.
Saleh, R., E. S. Robinson, D. S. Tkacik, A. T. Ahern, S. Liu, A. C. Aiken, R. C. Sullivan, A. A. Presto, M. K. Dubey, R. J. Yokelson, N. M. Donahue, & A. L. Robinson (2014) Brownness of organics in aerosols from biomass burning linked to their black carbon content, Nature Geoscience (Early View).