Articles | Volume 17, issue 23
Research article
04 Dec 2017
Research article |  | 04 Dec 2017

Impact of uncertainties in inorganic chemical rate constants on tropospheric composition and ozone radiative forcing

Ben Newsome and Mat Evans

Abstract. Chemical rate constants determine the composition of the atmosphere and how this composition has changed over time. They are central to our understanding of climate change and air quality degradation. Atmospheric chemistry models, whether online or offline, box, regional or global, use these rate constants. Expert panels evaluate laboratory measurements, making recommendations for the rate constants that should be used. This results in very similar or identical rate constants being used by all models. The inherent uncertainties in these recommendations are, in general, therefore ignored. We explore the impact of these uncertainties on the composition of the troposphere using the GEOS-Chem chemistry transport model. Based on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) evaluations we assess the influence of 50 mainly inorganic rate constants and 10 photolysis rates on tropospheric composition through the use of the GEOS-Chem chemistry transport model.

We assess the impact on four standard metrics: annual mean tropospheric ozone burden, surface ozone and tropospheric OH concentrations, and tropospheric methane lifetime. Uncertainty in the rate constants for NO2 + OH M  HNO3 and O3 + NO  →  NO2 + O2 are the two largest sources of uncertainty in these metrics. The absolute magnitude of the change in the metrics is similar if rate constants are increased or decreased by their σ values. We investigate two methods of assessing these uncertainties, addition in quadrature and a Monte Carlo approach, and conclude they give similar outcomes. Combining the uncertainties across the 60 reactions gives overall uncertainties on the annual mean tropospheric ozone burden, surface ozone and tropospheric OH concentrations, and tropospheric methane lifetime of 10, 11, 16 and 16 %, respectively. These are larger than the spread between models in recent model intercomparisons. Remote regions such as the tropics, poles and upper troposphere are most uncertain. This chemical uncertainty is sufficiently large to suggest that rate constant uncertainty should be considered alongside other processes when model results disagree with measurement.

Calculations for the pre-industrial simulation allow a tropospheric ozone radiative forcing to be calculated of 0.412 ± 0.062 W m−2. This uncertainty (13 %) is comparable to the inter-model spread in ozone radiative forcing found in previous model–model intercomparison studies where the rate constants used in the models are all identical or very similar. Thus, the uncertainty of tropospheric ozone radiative forcing should expanded to include this additional source of uncertainty. These rate constant uncertainties are significant and suggest that refinement of supposedly well-known chemical rate constants should be considered alongside other improvements to enhance our understanding of atmospheric processes.

Short summary
We explore the uncertainty in the predictions of a chemical transport model (GEOS-Chem) from uncertainty in 60 inorganic rate constants and photolysis rates. We find uncertainty in the global mean ozone burden of 10 %, in global mean OH of 16 %, methane lifetimes of 16 %, and tropospheric ozone radiative forcings of 13 %. Reductions in the uncertainty of rate constants of these simple reactions would reduce uncertainty in our understanding of atmospheric composition.
Final-revised paper