Exploring the observational constraints on the simulation of brown carbon
Abstract. Organic aerosols (OA) that strongly absorb solar radiation in the near-UV are referred to as brown carbon (BrC). The sources, evolution, and optical properties of BrC remain highly uncertain and contribute significantly to uncertainty in the estimate of the global direct radiative effect (DRE) of aerosols. Previous modeling studies of BrC optical properties and DRE have been unable to fully evaluate model performance due to the lack of direct measurements of BrC absorption. In this study, we develop a global model simulation (GEOS-Chem) of BrC and test it against BrC absorption measurements from two aircraft campaigns in the continental US (SEAC4RS and DC3). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to compare simulated BrC absorption with direct aircraft measurements. We show that BrC absorption properties estimated based on previous laboratory measurements agree with the aircraft measurements of freshly emitted BrC absorption but overestimate aged BrC absorption. In addition, applying a photochemical scheme to simulate bleaching/degradation of BrC improves model skill. The airborne observations are therefore consistent with a mass absorption coefficient (MAC) of freshly emitted biomass burning OA of 1.33 m2 g−1 at 365 nm coupled with a 1-day whitening e-folding time. Using the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model integrated with the RRTMG radiative transfer model, we estimate that the top-of-the-atmosphere all-sky direct radiative effect (DRE) of OA is −0.344 Wm−2, 10 % higher than that without consideration of BrC absorption. Therefore, our best estimate of the absorption DRE of BrC is +0.048 Wm−2. We suggest that the DRE of BrC has been overestimated previously due to the lack of observational constraints from direct measurements and omission of the effects of photochemical whitening.