Forest fires are an important source to carbonaceous aerosols in the Western United States (WUS). We quantify the relative contribution of biomass burning to black carbon (BC) in the WUS mountain ranges by analyzing surface BC observations for 2006 from the Interagency Monitoring of PROtected Visual Environment (IMPROVE) network using the GEOS-Chem global chemical transport model. Observed surface BC concentrations show broad maxima during late June to early November. Enhanced potassium concentrations and potassium/sulfur ratios observed during the high-BC events indicate a dominant biomass burning influence during the peak fire season. Model surface BC reproduces the observed day-to day and synoptic variabilities in regions downwind of but near urban centers. Major discrepancies are found at elevated mountainous sites during the July-October fire season when simulated BC concentrations are biased low by a factor of two. We attribute these low biases largely to the underestimated (by more than a factor of two) and temporally misplaced biomass burning emissions of BC in the model. Additionally, we find that the biomass burning contribution to surface BC concentrations in the USA likely was underestimated in a previous study using GEOS-Chem (Park et al., 2003), because of the unusually low planetary boundary layer (PBL) heights in the GEOS-3 meteorological reanalysis data used to drive the model. PBL heights from GEOS-4 and GEOS-5 reanalysis data are comparable to those from the North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR). Model simulations show slightly improved agreements with the observations when driven by GEOS-5 reanalysis data, but model results are still biased low. The use of biomass burning emissions with diurnal cycle, synoptic variability, and plume injection has relatively small impact on the simulated surface BC concentrations in the WUS.
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