The role of the particle size distribution in assessing aerosol composition effects on simulated droplet activation
Abstract. Variations in the chemical composition of atmospheric aerosols alter their hygroscopicity and can lead to changes in the cloud-active fraction of the aerosols, or cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) number concentration. To investigate the importance of this effect under different atmospheric conditions, cloud droplet formation was simulated with a Lagrangian parcel model. Initial values of updraft speed and temperature were systematically varied along with aerosol number concentration, size and hygroscopicity (represented by the hygroscopicity parameter, κ). A previous study classifies the sensitivity of CCN activity to compositional changes based on the supersaturation reached in the parcel model. We found that these classifications could not be generalized to a range of aerosol size distribution median radii. Instead, variations in sensitivity with size depend on the location of the dry critical radius for droplet activation relative to the size distribution median radius. The parcel model output was used to construct droplet activation lookup tables based on κ that were implemented in the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (RAMS) microphysical scheme. As a first application of this system, aerosol hygroscopicity and size were varied in a series of RAMS mesoscale simulations designed to investigate the sensitivity of a mixed-phase orographic cloud case to the parameter variations. Observations from a recent field campaign in northwestern Colorado provided the basis for the aerosol field initializations. Model results show moderate sensitivity in the distribution of total case precipitation to extreme changes in κ, and minimal sensitivity to observed changes in estimated κ. The impact of varying aerosol hygroscopicity diminished with increasing median radius, as expected from the parcel model results. The conclusions drawn from these simulations could simplify similar research in other cloud regimes by defining the need, or lack of need, for detailed knowledge of aerosol composition.