Results presented here show that a significant mass of aged accumulation mode aerosol was present in the southern West African monsoon layer, over both the ocean and the continent. A median dry aerosol concentration of 6.2 µg m−3 (standard temperature and pressure, STP) was observed over the Atlantic Ocean upwind of the major cities, with an interquartile range from 5.3 to 8.0 µg m−3. This concentration increased to a median of 11.1 µg m−3 (8.6 to 15.7 µg m−3) in the immediate outflow from cities. In the continental air mass away from the cities, the median aerosol loading was 7.5 µg m−3 (5.9 to 10.5 µg m−3). The accumulation mode aerosol population over land displayed similar chemical properties to the upstream population, which implies that upstream aerosol is a significant source of aerosol pollution over the continent. The upstream aerosol is found to have most likely originated from central and southern African biomass burning. This demonstrates that biomass burning plumes are being advected northwards, after being entrained into the monsoon layer over the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean. It is shown observationally for the first time that they contribute up to 80 % to the regional aerosol loading in the monsoon layer over southern West Africa. Results from the COSMO-ART (Consortium for Small-scale Modeling – Aerosol and Reactive Trace gases) and GEOS-Chem models support this conclusion, showing that observed aerosol concentrations over the northern Atlantic Ocean can only be reproduced when the contribution of transported biomass burning aerosol is taken into account.
As a result, the large and growing emissions from the coastal cities are overlaid on an already substantial aerosol background. Simulations using COSMO-ART show that cloud droplet number concentrations can increase by up to 27 % as a result of transported biomass burning aerosol. On a regional scale this renders cloud properties and precipitation less sensitive to future increases in anthropogenic emissions. In addition, such high background loadings will lead to greater pollution exposure for the large and growing population in southern West Africa. These results emphasise the importance of including aerosol from across country borders in the development of air pollution policies and interventions in regions such as West Africa.