Aircraft Observations of Biomass Burning Aerosols over Tropical South America

  • Eoghan Darbyshire

Student thesis: Phd


Biomass burning aerosol can perturb the atmospheric energy budget and hence regional and global climates via interactions with solar radiation and cloud microphysics. Furthermore, there are significant deleterious effects on human and ecosystem health. The magnitude and nature of these impacts is driven by the aerosols physiochemical properties and their vertical distribution. However the drivers of these are poorly characterised, especially in the tropics where widespread biomass burning is co-located with complex cloud fields and processes, high levels of solar insolation and rapid land use change.In this work the key drivers determining the geographic, vertical, meteorological and temporal variability of biomass burning haze in tropical South America are identified and quantified. This is based on an analysis of simultaneous and vertically resolved measurements of aerosol burden, aerosol intrinsic properties (composition, size, hygroscopicity and optics), gas phase mixing ratios and atmospheric thermodynamics. These novel in-situ measurements were undertaken during research flights as part of the South America Biomass Burning Analysis (SAMBBA) campaign in September/October 2012. A clear difference is observed between the two distinct fire regimes in tropical South America. Cerrado (deforestation) regimes in the east (west) are found to be characterised by more flaming (smouldering) combustion, leading to a contrast in emissions with relatively more (less) refractory black carbon to organic aerosol and smaller (larger) aerosol sizes. This results in a population which absorbs (scatters) more incoming solar radiation. Furthermore, the aerosol vertical distribution differs between regimes: in the east (west) biomass burning aerosol of a similar loading is distributed from the surface to ~4 km (~2 km). This is driven by contrasting thermodynamics, in particular convective mixing, and plume injection to greater altitudes in the east. This work is the first demonstration of a contrast between these two regions from in-situ measurements. The additional atmospheric heating from biomass burning aerosol, calculated from in-situ measurements for the first time in the tropics, is significant in both fire regimes, but especially so in the eastern Cerrado where it is greater than that from molecular absorption. Heating also increases with altitude in the east, owing to the prevalence of flaming combustion which is observed to inject more absorbing emissions to higher altitudes. Models do not consider this process, nor do they capture (via emissions factors) the regional difference identified. As such, the associated effects on atmospheric stability, cloud formation and large scale dynamics may not be adequately considered in model simulations and thus predictions may not be representative.To contextualise the in-situ measurements, satellite derived climatologies of fire and aerosol properties are presented for the past decade. In the west the aerosol and trace gas burden has significantly declined, in association with deforestation rates, total fire count and fire intensity. In the east, a small increase in aerosol and trace gas burden is coupled to decreasing single scattering albedos and increasing absorption at near-UV wavelengths, fire intensity and relative fire occurrence. The findings presented in this work offer new insight into the nature of tropical biomass burning aerosols: on how and why fire regimes result in contrasting physiochemical properties; on how the population is vertically distributed and why this varies between regimes; and on the significant additional heating biomass burning aerosol transfers to the atmosphere. In tropical South America specifically, the heating rate is greatest in the eastern Cerrado regions, co-located with increases in fire count and intensity and thus likely to have an increasingly significant impact on weather and climate in the region.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHugh Coe (Supervisor) & James Allan (Supervisor)


  • Aerosols
  • Biomass Burning
  • Amazon
  • Climate
  • Atmospheric Measurement
  • Fire

Cite this