Exploring the elevated water vapor signal associated with the free tropospheric biomass burning plume over the southeast Atlantic Ocean

Kristina Pistone*, Paquita Zuidema, Robert Wood, Michael Diamond, Arlindo M. Da Silva, Gonzalo Ferrada, Pablo E. Saide, Rei Ueyama, Ju Mee Ryoo, Leonhard Pfister, James Podolske, David Noone, Ryan Bennett, Eric Stith, Gregory Carmichael, Jens Redemann, Connor Flynn, Samuel Leblanc, Michal Segal-Rozenhaimer, Yohei Shinozuka

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In southern Africa, widespread agricultural fires produce substantial biomass burning (BB) emissions over the region. The seasonal smoke plumes associated with these emissions are then advected westward over the persistent stratocumulus cloud deck in the southeast Atlantic (SEA) Ocean, resulting in aerosol effects which vary with time and location. Much work has focused on the effects of these aerosol plumes, but previous studies have also described an elevated free tropospheric water vapor signal over the SEA. Water vapor influences climate in its own right, and it is especially important to consider atmospheric water vapor when quantifying aerosol-cloud interactions and aerosol radiative effects. Here we present airborne observations made during the NASA ORACLES (ObseRvations of Aerosols above CLouds and their intEractionS) campaign over the SEA Ocean. In observations collected from multiple independent instruments on the NASA P-3 aircraft (from near-surface to 6-7gkm), we observe a strongly linear correlation between pollution indicators (carbon monoxide (CO) and aerosol loading) and atmospheric water vapor content, seen at all altitudes above the boundary layer. The focus of the current study is on the especially strong correlation observed during the ORACLES-2016 deployment (out of Walvis Bay, Namibia), but a similar relationship is also observed in the August 2017 and October 2018 ORACLES deployments. Using reanalyses from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications, Version 2 (MERRA-2), and specialized WRF-Chem simulations, we trace the plume-vapor relationship to an initial humid, smoky continental source region, where it mixes with clean, dry upper tropospheric air and then is subjected to conditions of strong westward advection, namely the southern African easterly jet (AEJ-S). Our analysis indicates that air masses likely left the continent with the same relationship between water vapor and carbon monoxide as was observed by aircraft. This linear relationship developed over the continent due to daytime convection within a deep continental boundary layer (up to g1/45-6gkm) and mixing with higher-altitude air, which resulted in fairly consistent vertical gradients in CO and water vapor, decreasing with altitude and varying in time, but this water vapor does not originate as a product of the BB combustion itself. Due to a combination of conditions and mixing between the smoky, moist continental boundary layer and the dry and fairly clean upper-troposphere air above (g1/46gkm), the smoky, humid air is transported by strong zonal winds and then advected over the SEA (to the ORACLES flight region) following largely isentropic trajectories. Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory model (HYSPLIT) back trajectories support this interpretation. This work thus gives insights into the conditions and processes which cause water vapor to covary with plume strength. Better understanding of this relationship, including how it varies spatially and temporally, is important to accurately quantify direct, semi-direct, and indirect aerosol effects over this region.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9643-9668
Number of pages26
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number12
StatePublished - 29 Jun 2021


FundersFunder number
National Science FoundationAGS 1564670
National Science Foundation
National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationNNH13ZDA001N-EVS2
National Aeronautics and Space Administration


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