Articles | Volume 10, issue 22
25 Nov 2010
 | 25 Nov 2010

Atmospheric pollutant outflow from southern Asia: a review

M. G. Lawrence and J. Lelieveld

Abstract. Southern Asia, extending from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, is one of the most heavily populated regions of the world. Biofuel and biomass burning play a disproportionately large role in the emissions of most key pollutant gases and aerosols there, in contrast to much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, where fossil fuel burning and industrial processes tend to dominate. This results in polluted air masses which are enriched in carbon-containing aerosols, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons. The outflow and long-distance transport of these polluted air masses is characterized by three distinct seasonal circulation patterns: the winter monsoon, the summer monsoon, and the monsoon transition periods. During winter, the near-surface flow is mostly northeasterly, and the regional pollution forms a thick haze layer in the lower troposphere which spreads out over millions of square km between southern Asia and the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), located several degrees south of the equator over the Indian Ocean during this period. During summer, the heavy monsoon rains effectively remove soluble gases and aerosols. Less soluble species, on the other hand, are lifted to the upper troposphere in deep convective clouds, and are then transported away from the region by strong upper tropospheric winds, particularly towards northern Africa and the Mediterranean in the tropical easterly jet. Part of the pollution can reach the tropical tropopause layer, the gateway to the stratosphere. During the monsoon transition periods, the flow across the Indian Ocean is primarily zonal, and strong pollution plumes originating from both southeastern Asia and from Africa spread across the central Indian Ocean. This paper provides a review of the current state of knowledge based on the many observational and modeling studies over the last decades that have examined the southern Asian atmospheric pollutant outflow and its large scale effects. An outlook is provided as a guideline for future research, pointing out particularly critical issues such as: resolving discrepancies between top down and bottom up emissions estimates; assessing the processing and aging of the pollutant outflow; developing a better understanding of the observed elevated pollutant layers and their relationship to local sea breeze and large scale monsoon circulations; and determining the impacts of the pollutant outflow on the Asian monsoon meteorology and the regional hydrological cycle, in particular the mountain cryospheric reservoirs and the fresh water supply, which in turn directly impact the lives of over a billion inhabitants of southern Asia.

Final-revised paper