Articles | Volume 24, issue 1
Research article
11 Jan 2024
Research article |  | 11 Jan 2024

Weekly derived top-down volatile-organic-compound fluxes over Europe from TROPOMI HCHO data from 2018 to 2021

Glenn-Michael Oomen, Jean-François Müller, Trissevgeni Stavrakou, Isabelle De Smedt, Thomas Blumenstock, Rigel Kivi, Maria Makarova, Mathias Palm, Amelie Röhling, Yao Té, Corinne Vigouroux, Martina M. Friedrich, Udo Frieß, François Hendrick, Alexis Merlaud, Ankie Piters, Andreas Richter, Michel Van Roozendael, and Thomas Wagner

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are key precursors of particulate matter and tropospheric ozone. Although the terrestrial biosphere is by far the largest source of VOCs into the atmosphere, the emissions of biogenic VOCs remain poorly constrained at the regional scale. In this work, we derive top-down biogenic emissions over Europe using weekly averaged TROPOMI formaldehyde (HCHO) data from 2018 to 2021. The systematic bias of the TROPOMI HCHO columns is characterized and corrected for based on comparisons with FTIR data at seven European stations. The top-down fluxes of biogenic, pyrogenic, and anthropogenic VOC sources are optimized using an inversion framework based on the MAGRITTEv1.1 chemistry transport model and its adjoint. The inversion leads to strongly increased isoprene emissions with respect to the MEGAN–MOHYCAN inventory over the model domain (from 8.1 to 18.5 Tg yr−1), which is driven by the high observed TROPOMI HCHO columns in southern Europe. The impact of the inversion on biomass burning VOCs (+13 %) and anthropogenic VOCs (17 %) is moderate. An evaluation of the optimized HCHO distribution against ground-based remote sensing (FTIR and MAX-DOAS) and in situ data provides generally improved agreement at stations below about 50 N but indicates overestimated emissions in northern Scandinavia. Sensitivity inversions show that the top-down emissions are robust with respect to changes in the inversion settings and in the model chemical mechanism, leading to differences of up to 10 % in the total emissions. However, the top-down emissions are very sensitive to the bias correction of the observed columns, as the biogenic emissions are 3 times lower when the correction is not applied. Furthermore, the use of different a priori biogenic emissions has a significant impact on the inversion results due to large differences among bottom-up inventories. The sensitivity run using CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 as a priori emissions in the inversion results in 30 % lower emissions with respect to the optimization using MEGAN–MOHYCAN. In regions with large temperature and cloud cover variations, there is strong week-to-week variability in the observed HCHO columns. The top-down emissions, which are optimized at weekly increments, have a much improved capability of representing these large fluctuations than an inversion using monthly increments.

1 Introduction

The emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) play an important role for both air quality and climate. They are precursors of secondary organic aerosols (SOAs; Claeys et al.2004; Hallquist et al.2009) and also impact tropospheric ozone levels through their interaction with NOx (Houweling et al.1998; Churkina et al.2017). Globally, the largest source of NMVOCs is of biogenic origin, making up about 85 % of the total emissions as compared to 12 % and 3 % for anthropogenic and pyrogenic emissions, respectively (Stavrakou et al.2018; Granier et al.2019). Among the biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), isoprene (C5H8) makes up about half of the global emissions, making it the most important NMVOC (Guenther et al.2012; Sindelarova et al.2014). Even though isoprene emission models agree on several important features such as temperature and light density dependence, seasonality, and interannual variability, there are still large inconsistencies among different inventories regarding the annual global emission of isoprene, ranging from ∼300 to 600Tgyr-1 (Sindelarova et al.2022). The main drivers of these discrepancies come from differences in the climate inputs, the emission factors, and the vegetation fields entering the model (Arneth et al.2011).

Isoprene has a strong influence on tropospheric chemistry due to its large emissions and its fast photochemical sink, mainly through its reaction with OH radicals. The latter leads to the formation of various organic compounds through a long cascade of chemical reactions (Wennberg et al.2018; Müller et al.2019), some of which remain poorly characterized, especially in remote environments characterized by low levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx, defined as NO + NO2). Isoprene has an average lifetime of ∼1 h in the troposphere (Bates and Jacob2019). One of its highest-yield oxidation products is formaldehyde (HCHO), a compound that can be readily measured using both ground- and space-based detectors. The main source of HCHO is the oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), whereas direct emission provides only a small contribution. Methane oxidation accounts for approximately 60 % of the global HCHO budget (Stavrakou et al.2009), but due to its long lifetime, it functions as a background source. Indeed, short-lived VOCs, such as isoprene and monoterpenes, have a larger impact on the spatial distribution of HCHO. Additionally, HCHO is also relatively quickly destroyed through photolysis and reaction with OH and has a lifetime of approximately 5 h (Stavrakou et al.2015). Transport processes are relatively unimportant for its measured distribution because of its short lifetime and of the rapid chemical processing leading to HCHO production (except at night, during winter, or in NOx-poor environments; see Marais et al.2012). Consequently, HCHO is an excellent tracer, and its total columns can be directly linked to the emissions of reactive NMVOCs.

Since the advent of satellite HCHO data products, many studies have been conducted on the derivation of top-down biogenic emissions in an inversion framework. This includes studies performed using satellite HCHO data from GOME (e.g., Palmer et al.2006), SCIAMACHY (e.g., Stavrakou et al.2009), OMI (e.g., Millet et al.2008; Stavrakou et al.2018), and GOME-2 (e.g., Stavrakou et al.2015). HCHO is a trace gas with a low optical density in the atmosphere, and its absorption features in the ultraviolet (UV) are heavily blended with BrO and O3 lines. Consequently, HCHO vertical columns from satellite measurements are relatively noisy, and substantial spatial and temporal averaging is needed in order to derive reliable top-down emissions.

In this study, we use the HCHO product of the Tropospheric Ozone Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI; De Smedt et al.2018) mounted on the Sentinel-5P (S5P) satellite as observational constraints in the top-down inversion. Due to its unprecedented spatial resolution and high signal-to-noise ratio, we use weekly averages of the data at 0.5×0.5 spatial resolution, whereas previous studies used averages at monthly or longer timescales. Because the emissions of biogenic VOCs are strongly temperature-dependent, HCHO volume mixing ratios can show strong temporal variability in the course of 1 month. We can expect that limiting the extent of temporal averaging will significantly improve the constraints in the inversion.

We focus our study on the European domain as depicted in Fig. 1. This domain contributes only a small amount to the global biogenic VOC budget, since the highest isoprene emissions take place in warmer, more densely vegetated regions such as tropical forests. Nonetheless, the quantification of the BVOC emissions in Europe is important, since the high levels of anthropogenic NOx and sulfate particles make BVOCs more prone to the production of tropospheric ozone (Seinfeld and Pandis2016) and secondary organic aerosols (Schwantes et al.2019; Bryant et al.2020). Furthermore, the high amount of validation data available in the domain, as is shown in Fig. 1, makes this region an excellent target for our inversion study. Previous top-down VOC emission studies over Europe using HCHO data include Dufour et al. (2009) and Curci et al. (2010), which used the CHIMERE model in combination with SCIAMACHY and OMI observations, respectively. Their inversion studies resulted in slightly reduced isoprene emissions with respect to the a priori estimates obtained from the MEGAN bottom-up inventory (Guenther et al.1995, 2006). More precisely, Curci et al. (2010) found a decrease in isoprene emissions from 3.16 to 3.04 Tg in the domain (3575 N, 15 W–25 E) for the months May to September in 2005. In a global-scale inversion study by Bauwens et al. (2016) using OMI HCHO data from 2005 to 2013 and the IMAGESv2 model, a moderate increase in isoprene emissions was inferred in both eastern and western Europe, with a total increase over the European domain from 6.8 to 8.4 Tg yr−1.

Figure 1Locations of ground-based HCHO column stations and in situ HCHO measurement sites in Europe presented in Table 1.

The inversion of VOC emissions is sensitive to constraints from satellite observations. Consequently, it is important to carefully validate the satellite measurements using ground-based and aircraft measurements. Several validation studies have shown that OMI and TROPOMI HCHO columns are too low over source regions with respect to validation datasets (Zhu et al.2020; Vigouroux et al.2020; De Smedt et al.2021). This bias was not accounted for in previous HCHO emission inversion studies. The origin of the bias is unknown, although some known difficulties in the HCHO retrieval include aerosol effects, uncertainties in the treatment of clouds, spectral interferences with BrO and ozone, and a coarse albedo climatology (Vigouroux et al.2020). The bias can be corrected for based on a linear regression of the ground-based and satellite vertical columns. In this work, we derive a bias correction based on ground-based FTIR measurements at stations located in the European domain.

We describe the different types of data (ground-based and satellite) used in this work in Sect. 2. Section 3 describes the setup of the inversion, as well as the chemistry transport model MAGRITTEv1.1 around which the inversion framework is built. A detailed characterization of the biases of the TROPOMI HCHO data product is presented in Sect. 4 based on FTIR and MAX-DOAS data over Europe. Based on this analysis, a procedure for correcting the biases is proposed and used in the emission inversions. The inversion results are shown in Sect. 5, including a comparison of the top-down model with ground-based data. In Sect. 6, we provide an analysis of the emission uncertainties by means of sensitivity inversions. Finally, we present the conclusions in Sect. 7.

2 HCHO data

In this section, we provide an overview of the measurement datasets used in this work. TROPOMI HCHO column data are used to constrain the VOC emissions in the model (Sect. 2.1). We perform a careful validation of the satellite data using ground-based FTIR vertical columns from a range of stations across Europe (Sect. 2.2). We further validate the top-down results by including European MAX-DOAS stations in our ground-based remote sensing dataset (Sect. 2.3). Finally, in situ HCHO concentration data are also used to evaluate the model before and after inversion (Sect. 2.4). The full list of ground-based stations used in this work is shown in Table 1 and Fig. 1.

Table 1List of stations providing ground-based remote sensing measurements (FTIR and MAX-DOAS) and in situ measurements.

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2.1 TROPOMI HCHO column densities

The S5P satellite has a nadir-viewing orientation in a low-Earth, Sun-synchronous polar orbit. It has a daily equatorial overpass at 13:30 LT. The TROPOMI instrument, onboard the S5P platform, is an imaging spectrometer covering ultraviolet, visible, near-infrared, and short-wavelength infrared ranges. In the UV–VIS range, the initial spatial resolution of the instrument was 3.5×7 km2, which was further improved to 3.5×5.5 km2 after 6 August 2019.

The HCHO retrieval relies on the differential optical absorption spectroscopy (DOAS) method, which allows for the isolation of narrow trace gas absorption features. The TROPOMI retrieval algorithm is based on the QA4ECV algorithm developed for its predecessor OMI (De Smedt et al.2018). The first step is the derivation of the slant column density in the wavelength range 328.5–359 nm. The DOAS reference spectrum is updated daily with an average of Earth reflected radiances measured in a remote sector of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. The slant columns are converted into tropospheric vertical columns using altitude-dependent air mass factors, which are obtained from a look-up table calculated with the VLIDORT v2.6 radiative transfer model (Spurr et al.2008), for a large number of atmospheric conditions depending on the observation angles, surface reflectivity, surface pressure, and cloud properties. A priori vertical profiles are provided by the TM5-MP daily analysis on 34 vertical levels at a spatial resolution of 1 (Williams et al.2017). The surface albedo is taken from the monthly OMI albedo climatology at 0.5 (minimum Lambertian equivalent reflectivity, LER; Kleipool et al.2008). The final step of the algorithm consists of a background correction of the columns, using again the Pacific Ocean as a reference sector. The background HCHO columns, mostly due to methane oxidation, are replaced by the TM5-MP model columns in the same sector (De Smedt et al.2021).

We use the operational offline level 2 data product (, which provides HCHO tropospheric column data together with uncertainty estimates, as well as a priori profiles and averaging kernels (De Smedt et al.2018, 2021). The latter provide information on the vertical sensitivity of the satellite measurement, which is necessary to make meaningful comparisons with our model. We only select data with a quality value higher than 0.5, as recommended by the S5P HCHO product user manual (, last access: 21 August 2023). We use the clear-sky product, meaning that the cloud information is only used to filter the satellite observations, and the cloud correction to the air mass factors is ignored (De Smedt et al.2021). To ensure that cloud contamination has a minimal effect on the total columns, we impose that the cloud fraction for each pixel is lower than 0.2, which is stricter than the standard cloud filter (fraction of 0.4 when using a quality value of 0.5).

Figure 2 shows the TROPOMI HCHO vertical columns over Europe for 4 weeks in July 2019, gridded spatially onto the model resolution (0.5×0.5). High temperatures and high levels of solar radiation generally favor biogenic emissions and HCHO production from long-lived VOC precursors. On average, this leads to higher HCHO columns in southern Europe due to higher temperatures and radiation levels with decreasing latitude. Local minima generally correspond to mountain ranges, oceans, and arid or semi-arid areas. Meteorology plays an important role in the spatio-temporal variability in the observed columns (Fig. 2). Most notably, the high HCHO columns in central Europe in the last week of July 2019 are due to a record-breaking heat wave (Sousa et al.2020). Weekly averaged TROPOMI HCHO columns are used as observational constraints in our inversion framework. At the resolution of 0.5, and using weekly averaged columns, the precision of the TROPOMI HCHO columns is estimated to range between 1 and 3×, from background to continental conditions (De Smedt et al.2021). The bias of the HCHO vertical columns is estimated to amount to 30 % of the column for high HCHO levels and to 30 % of the column for low HCHO levels (Vigouroux et al.2020). A detailed derivation of the bias over the target domain is presented in Sect. 4.

Figure 2TROPOMI vertical HCHO columns over Europe for the different weeks of July 2019, gridded at 0.5×0.5. White regions correspond to grid cells without valid data over the week (usually due to clouds or snow/ice). Week 1 corresponds to days 1 to 8, week 2 corresponds to days 9 to 16, week 3 corresponds to days 17 to 24, and week 4 corresponds to days 25 to 31.

2.2 FTIR column observations

The FTIR stations used in this study (Table 1) are part of the international networks TCCON (Total Carbon Column Observing Network;, last access: 21 August 2023) and/or NDACC (Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change,, last access: 21 August 2023). They record remote sensing solar absorption measurements in the infrared domain, under clear-sky conditions, using high-resolution spectrometers from the same manufacturer (Bruker 120/5HR). The retrievals of atmospheric total columns and low-resolution vertical profiles are performed using either one of the two algorithms available in the community (PROFITT9, Hase et al.2006, and SFIT4, Pougatchev et al.1995), both based on similar line-by-line forward models and optimal-estimation methods (Rodgers2000) and therefore providing very consistent outputs.

To build a coherent dataset useful for satellite validation or model evaluation, the retrieval settings of HCHO have been harmonized within the FTIR community (Vigouroux et al.2018). This dataset has been used for the validation of TROPOMI (Vigouroux et al.2020, updated in quarterly reports at, last access: 21 August 2023), GOME-2 (, last access: 21 August 2023), or more recently OMPS (Kwon et al.2023). Currently 28 stations provide HCHO column data, among which 7 are in the European domain (Table 1, Fig. 1).

The details of the harmonized retrieval settings are documented in Vigouroux et al. (2018). In summary, the fitted spectral signatures lie in the 3.6 µm region and belong to the ν1 and ν5 bands. The spectroscopic database is a compilation from Geoffrey Toon, the atm16 line list (, last access: 21 August 2023), which corresponds to HITRAN 2012 (Rothman et al.2013) for HCHO and is optimized for each of the interfering species. The Tikhonov regularization (Tikhonov1963) is used for constraining/optimizing the retrievals of low-resolution vertical HCHO profiles. The degrees of freedom of signal (DOFSs; trace of the averaging kernel matrix) amount to only 1 to 1.4 for the stations used in this study, implying that only total column information can be retrieved. The averaging kernel shape shows that the sensitivity is highest in the free troposphere (although still present at the surface).

The FTIR dataset is well characterized in terms of uncertainty budget, which is calculated following Rodgers (2000). The systematic uncertainty on the HCHO columns is about 13 % (Vigouroux et al.2018) and is dominated by the uncertainty on the spectroscopic parameters. The random uncertainties, dominated by the measurement noise, can be as low as 1.0× (8 %) for the pristine Eureka site and up to 5.3× (7 %) for the polluted Paris site. In addition, the FTIR data have significant random and systematic smoothing uncertainties (Vigouroux et al.2018), but this component vanishes when the model profiles are smoothed using the FTIR averaging kernel matrix (Rodgers and Connor2003), as done in this study.

2.3 MAX-DOAS column observations

The MAX-DOAS (Multi-AXis Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy) technique (Hönninger et al.2004; Platt and Stutz2008) involves recording UV–visible spectra of the scattered skylight at different elevation angles between the horizon and the zenith. The different elevation angles yield different optical paths and thus different absorption strengths for trace gases present in the troposphere. By combining these multi-axis measurements with appropriate inversion schemes, it is possible to infer the vertical distribution and the integrated vertical column of several species absorbing in the UV–visible range, such as NO2, HCHO, or ozone. MAX-DOAS measurements also allow the absorption of the oxygen collision complex (O4) to be quantified, which yields information on the tropospheric profile of aerosol extinction. The latter is crucial for the assessment of the optical path and the quantitative interpretation of the measured trace gas absorptions.

Table 1 presents the MAX-DOAS stations used in this work. They rely on various types of MAX-DOAS instruments differing in size, geometry, and signal-to-noise ratio and are located in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece. Depending on the spectral ranges of the spectrometers, the absorption of HCHO is measured either in the 324 to 359 nm or 336 to 359 nm spectral window, while O4 is fitted in the 338 to 370 nm window. The consistency of the HCHO and O4 absorption measurements has been demonstrated by regular intercomparison studies (e.g., Kreher et al.2020). For stations that have multiple viewing directions, we treat the different directions equally.

Regarding the MAX-DOAS data analysis, this work uses the facilities developed within the FRM4DOAS project (Fiducial Reference Measurements for Ground-Based DOAS Air-Quality Observations;, last access: 23 August 2023). FRM4DOAS aims at harmonizing the data processing from MAX-DOAS instruments operated within the International Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC) by incorporating existing retrieval algorithms into a fully traceable, automated, and quality-controlled processing chain.

The FRM4DOAS evaluation starts with the production of differential slant column densities by applying the QDOAS analysis tool (Danckaert and Fayt2017). The QDOAS settings for FRM4DOAS are described in Hendrick et al. (2018). The FRM4DOAS system implements two MAX-DOAS retrieval algorithms: MAPA (Mainz Profile Algorithm; Beirle et al.2019), which is based on a parameterization of the retrieval profile shape and a Monte Carlo approach for the inversion, and MMF (Mexican MAX-DOAS Fit; Friedrich et al.2019), an optimal-estimation-based algorithm using the radiative transfer code VLIDORT v2.7 (Spurr et al.2008) as a forward model. In this work, analogously to the official NO2 product, only HCHO MMF data consistent with MAPA HCHO are retained. Both inversion algorithms have been extensively tested and validated using synthetic (Frieß et al.2019) and real data (Tirpitz et al.2021; Karagkiozidis et al.2022). Vigouroux et al. (2009) quantified the uncertainties in individual MAX-DOAS measurements of HCHO vertical column densities (VCDs). The systematic uncertainties mainly originate from the HCHO cross-section and amount to 9 % of the HCHO VCD. The smoothing error (20 %) dominates the random error. After taking into account the retrieval noise (9 %) and the errors in the forward model parameters (12 %), this leads to a total random error of around 25 %.

2.4 In situ

Additional data to evaluate our model are provided by ground-based in situ measurement stations. We use data from the EMEP network (Tørseth et al.2012), available at the EBAS database ( The list of stations with available HCHO concentration measurements is provided in Table 1. All in situ stations use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to derive HCHO concentrations at daily or 3 d intervals.

For the majority of in situ stations in Table 1, measurements were taken before the time span covered in this study (i.e., before 2018). For those stations, we compute a climatological average of the measurements by averaging the data per month across the different years. However, caution is required when comparing a climatological average to a recent model, since HCHO concentrations are sensitive to meteorology and land-use changes.

3 Inversion methodology

3.1 Model description

The inversion method is built around the Model of Atmospheric composition at Global and Regional scales using Inversion Techniques for Trace gas Emissions (MAGRITTEv1.1; Müller et al.2019). This model is based on its predecessor IMAGES (Müller and Stavrakou2005; Stavrakou et al.2012; Bauwens et al.2016) and simulates the atmospheric composition at either the global or regional scale. Its chemical mechanism includes 141 long-lived and 41 short-lived compounds. In particular, it contains a state-of-the-art chemical mechanism for the atmospheric degradation of isoprene, based on the Leuven Isoprene Mechanism (LIM1; Peeters et al.2014), and includes updates from recent experimental studies (Wennberg et al.2018; Berndt et al.2019). This chemical mechanism is thoroughly described in Müller et al. (2019). The only important update with respect to the mechanism of Müller et al. (2019) concerns the isomerization rate of δ-hydroxyperoxy radicals from isoprene, which was based on a determination by the Caltech group (Wennberg et al.2018). In this study, faster isomerization rates are used, based on the LIM1 determination of the 1,6 H-shift rate, combined with a 5-fold enhancement of the O2 addition and elimination rates (also from LIM1). This enhanced rate was found necessary by Novelli et al. (2020) to reproduce their chamber measurements of HOx radicals and isoprene oxidation products in dedicated oxidation experiments in the simulation chamber SAPHIR.

Meteorological fields are obtained from the ECMWF ERA5 reanalysis data (Hersbach et al.2020). The MAGRITTE model is first run in its global configuration at a spatial resolution of 2×2.5 (latitude, longitude). This simulation provides the boundary conditions for the MAGRITTEv1.1 model runs at 0.5×0.5 over the European domain delimited by 34–72 N, 12 W–45 E. The model has 40 unequally spaced vertical levels, extending from the surface up to a pressure of about 44 hPa.

Anthropogenic VOC emissions are obtained from the CAMS-GLOB-ANT inventory (Granier et al.2019, version 4.3); biomass burning emissions are obtained from the Quick Fire Emissions Dataset (QFED) version 2.4 (Darmenov and da Silva2015) combined with emission factors from Andreae (2019); and biogenic emissions of isoprene, monoterpenes, and methanol are obtained from the Model of Emissions of Gases and Aerosols from Nature (MEGAN) coupled to the multi-layer canopy environment model (MOHYCAN; Müller et al.2008; Guenther et al.2012; Stavrakou et al.2018). The anthropogenic VOC emissions display a slow declining trend, from 16.8 Tg VOC in 2018 to 16.6 Tg VOC in 2021. The annual biomass burning fluxes over the European domain amount to 1.6 and 1.7 Tg VOC in 2018 and 2021, whereas the fluxes are much higher in 2019 (2.5 Tg VOC) and 2020 (2.6 Tg VOC). The annual a priori isoprene fluxes amount to 8.2, 7.9, 7.8, and 8.4 Tg in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively.

The biogenic emission fluxes are dependent on a range of environmental and phenological factors. In the MEGAN model, the biogenic emission flux F is calculated as

(1) F = ϵ C CE γ A γ CO 2 γ SM k = 1 8 LAI k γ PT ,

where ϵ represents the standard emission rates obtained from the gridded distribution of Guenther et al. (2012), and CCE=0.52 is an adjustment factor ensuring that F equals ϵ under standard conditions (Müller et al.2008). LAI is the leaf area index, and the different γ factors describe the emission activity and are related to photon density and leaf temperature (PT), leaf age (A), CO2 concentration, and soil moisture (SM) (see Guenther et al.2006). In this work, we neglect the effects of drought (γSM=1), and we use the parameterization of Possell and Hewitt (2011) for γCO2. The summation in Eq. (1) is performed over eight layers of the canopy, for which the MOHYCAN model calculates the direct and diffuse radiative fluxes and leaf temperature in each layer. For the above-canopy meteorological parameters, the ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts) ERA5 reanalysis is used (Hersbach et al.2020).

The MAGRITTE model accounts for diurnal variations in the chemical compounds through correction factors on the chemical reaction rates, photolysis rates, convective fluxes, and boundary layer mixing diffusivities computed via a full simulation of the diurnal cycle using a time step of 20 min (Stavrakou et al.2009; Bauwens et al.2016). Diurnal profile shapes calculated with the short time step are also used to estimate HCHO vertical columns at the overpass time of the TROPOMI instrument. The simulations are carried out with a time step of 24 h using daily averaged chemical and dynamical parameters adjusted for the diurnal cycle using the pre-calculated correction factors. This setup provides an optimal balance between model accuracy and computational cost.

3.2 Inversion setup

The inversion aims at optimizing the emissions in the model in order to improve the comparison between modeled HCHO columns and TROPOMI observations. The emissions are optimized per emission category (biogenic, pyrogenic, and anthropogenic), per grid cell, and per week. We only use TROPOMI data between May and September, when HCHO columns are highest, biogenic and pyrogenic emissions become important, and the photochemical lifetime of HCHO precursors is short, resulting in a minimal impact of dilution and transport of VOCs away from the emission areas. Even though the assimilation window only includes the summer months, the emissions can be modified throughout the full year due to temporal correlations imposed on the emission parameters (see below). We always consider 4 weeks per month, which are defined as sets of 8, 7, 8, and 7 d or 8, 8, 8, and 7 d for months with 30 and 31 d, respectively. The inversions are performed independently for each year. We can write the top-down emissions G(x,t) as

(2) G ( x , t ) = j = 1 3 ϕ j ( x , t ) exp ( f j ( x , t ) ) ,

where j denotes the emission category, ϕj denotes the a priori emission fluxes, fj denotes the emission parameters to be optimized, and x and t are the spatial coordinates (longitude and latitude) and time (week). For the biogenic component, the emission parameters are only applied to isoprene and monoterpenes, as they make up the majority of the total biogenic emissions. Furthermore, isoprene and monoterpenes are short-lived and therefore have a strong impact on the HCHO distribution. The fluxes from a pixel and source category are only optimized when the a priori weekly value exceeds at least once throughout the year. The total number of parameters to be optimized by the inversion is of the order of 2×105 for each year.

The modeled HCHO columns are compared to the observed, bias-corrected HCHO columns of TROPOMI after application of the TROPOMI averaging kernels to the modeled profiles. We define the cost function J by

(3) J ( f ) = 1 2 [ ( H ( f ) - y ) T E - 1 ( H ( f ) - y ) + f T B - 1 f ] ,

where f=fj(x,t) is a dimensionless vector consisting of the emission parameters of Eq. (2) to be optimized; H(f) denotes the HCHO columns simulated by the model and smoothed by the TROPOMI averaging kernels; y denotes the bias-corrected TROPOMI HCHO columns; and E and B are the error covariance matrices of the HCHO columns and emission parameters, respectively (Müller and Stavrakou2005). The first term in Eq. (3) quantifies the difference between the modeled and observed HCHO columns, whereas the second term acts as regularization, preventing the optimized emissions from excessively deviating from the a priori emissions. The error covariance matrix E is assumed to be diagonal (i.e., errors are uncorrelated), and its elements consist of the retrieval errors in the HCHO columns, to which a model error taken equal to 2× is quadratically added. The matrix B, on the other hand, has a diagonal component consisting of the square of the relative errors in the flux parameters f, which are set equal to 0.9 (corresponding to an uncertainty factor of 2.5) for biogenic and biomass burning emissions and to 0.7 (factor of 2 uncertainty) for the anthropogenic emission fluxes. The non-diagonal elements of B are dependent on spatio-temporal correlations of the errors in the fluxes. For biogenic and biomass burning emissions, the spatial correlations are assumed to decrease exponentially with distance dij between two grid cells i and j, such that

(4) B i j = σ i ϕ i 2 exp - d i j l ,

where l is the decorrelation length assumed to be 200 km, ϕi is the total flux emitted from grid cell i, and σi/ϕi is its relative error. Furthermore, we assume that biogenic emissions emitted by different plant functional types (PFTs) are uncorrelated, such that

(5) B i j = n e i n e j n σ i ϕ i σ j ϕ j exp - d i j l ,

with ein being the fraction of flux emitted in cell i by PFT n. Similarly, the anthropogenic emissions from different countries or from different EDGARv4.3.2 categories (road transport, emission processes during production and application, fuel exploitation, energy for buildings, combustion for manufacturing, and the rest) are assumed uncorrelated. This choice is justified by the fact that anthropogenic emission policies are usually taken at the country level and that generally uniform methodologies and emission factors are applied within each country in bottom-up inventories. The spatial correlation coefficient is constant (value of 0.2) for a given category within the same country. No additional dependence on distance is assumed. The temporal correlation of the errors is assumed to decrease linearly from 0.7 for consecutive weeks to zero after 3 months for all emission categories. Finally, after averaging the data weekly, we filter out TROPOMI HCHO columns below 3×1015 molec. cm−2, since these low columns are most uncertain, as discussed in Sect. 4). This filtering of low columns results in too-high top-down emissions in northern Europe (see Sect. 5).

The inversion derives updated emission parameters f that minimize the cost function in Eq. (3). To achieve this, we make use of the adjoint of the MAGRITTEv1.1 model, which calculates the gradient of the cost function with respect to the emission parameters. The cost function is iteratively minimized using a large-scale quasi-Newton method (Gilbert and Lemaréchal1989), and a new set of emission parameters f is calculated. This procedure is repeated until the norm of the gradient of the cost function is decreased by a factor of 100 with respect to its initial value. This is achieved after about 40 to 50 iterations.

4 Validation of TROPOMI HCHO over Europe

Previous studies have shown that satellite HCHO data are biased low for high HCHO columns and high for low HCHO columns compared to aircraft (Zhu et al.2020) and ground-based data (Vigouroux et al.2020; De Smedt et al.2021). A careful validation of the satellite product is therefore required in order to prevent the propagation of these biases into the derived top-down emissions. The nature of these biases is unknown at this point. To rule out a possible geographical dependence of the bias, we focus on stations in the European domain to derive the bias correction. We use the FTIR station data described in Sect. 2.2 and perform the validation using daily spatio-temporal collocation criteria, following the approach of Vigouroux et al. (2020). More specifically, we average TROPOMI scenes within 20 km of the station location. Additionally, we select ground-based observations acquired within 3 h of the satellite overpass (i.e., from 10:30 to 16:30 LT) in order to minimize the effect of diurnal variations. These criteria provide an optimal balance between data averaging and collocation (see Vigouroux et al.2020; De Smedt et al.2021). Days with no valid TROPOMI measurements or no valid ground-based measurement are excluded. For the validation, we only select ground-based and TROPOMI data from May to September, since we use data during this period as constraints for the inversion. Furthermore, we do not consider MAX-DOAS data for TROPOMI validation due to the difference in vertical sensitivities between TROPOMI and MAX-DOAS, shown in Fig. 3. The vertical sensitivities of the FTIR and TROPOMI observations have more overlap, specifically in the higher atmospheric layers, whereas the MAX-DOAS measurement sensitivity is maximum in the boundary layer. FTIR HCHO columns are therefore better suited for validation purposes, whereas MAX-DOAS data are particularly useful to provide complementary information to the satellite columns.

Figure 3Average vertical sensitivity profiles for TROPOMI (blue), FTIR (orange), and MAX-DOAS (red) instruments. Both the averaging kernels (AVKs) and pressure levels are averaged using all measurements at the station locations.


To make a meaningful comparison between space-based and ground-based data, it is necessary to apply a “smoothing” technique to the ground-based data (Rodgers and Connor2003). In this regard, we follow the methodology described in Sect. 4.2 of Vigouroux et al. (2020). First, the vertical profile of HCHO at each station is corrected for the different a priori profile that was used in the retrieval of the satellite column. Using the averaging kernel of the ground-based measurement, the a priori profile is substituted by the TM5-MP profile of the TROPOMI retrieval, thereby modifying the retrieved profile at altitudes where the measurement is not very sensitive. The modified station profile is then smoothed by applying the averaging kernel of the collocated clear-sky TROPOMI measurements. Finally, a correction to the total column is applied to account for topographical elevation variations in the TROPOMI footprint around the station. The smoothed columns can then be directly compared to the satellite columns. In the comparisons, we used weekly averages, since weekly averaged TROPOMI HCHO columns are used as top-down constraints in the inversion. A comparison between TROPOMI HCHO columns and the smoothed FTIR columns is illustrated in the scatterplot of Fig. 4.

Figure 4Scatterplot of space-based (TROPOMI) vertical HCHO columns versus ground-based (FTIR) vertical HCHO columns. The data have been collocated and weekly averaged. The linear fit is shown in blue, and its formal uncertainties are depicted by the blue-shaded area.


The linear regression is performed using the Passing–Bablok estimator (Passing and Bablok1983, 1984; Bablok et al.1988), which is commonly used in the comparison between measurements of different methods by virtue of its symmetrical properties and its robustness in the presence of outliers. The comparison of the collocated data shows that TROPOMI HCHO columns are biased with respect to FTIR measurements. The FTIR data suggest that the high TROPOMI HCHO columns are too low, and the low TROPOMI columns are too high with respect to the FTIR measurements. This agrees well with previous FTIR-based bias corrections over the global domain (Vigouroux et al.2020). We note that for low TROPOMI HCHO columns, i.e., below 3×, the regression line falls below a large majority of FTIR data, indicating that it is not suitable in that range.

The statistical uncertainty in the linear fit calculated and shown inset in Fig. 4 is clearly underestimated, given the substantial column differences between the different stations (see also monthly means for individual stations in Fig. S1 in the Supplement). We note that stations in northern Europe (Kiruna and Sodankylä) show no significant bias with respect to TROPOMI, while stations at mid-latitudes (Germany and France) show a larger bias. The linear scaling of the bias with respect to the vertical column suggests a large bias in southern Europe. However, due to the lack of ground-based data available in southern Europe, we cannot confirm or refute this claim at this point. An accurate bias correction is particularly important for southern Europe since the highest biogenic emissions are released from the warmer southern European ecosystems.

An additional source of uncertainty originates in data averaging. Averaging the HCHO data inherently introduces a bias in the fit towards weeks with fewer data. We also find that averaging over longer periods (e.g., monthly) of the satellite data generally results in larger slopes and smaller intercepts in the fit compared to the weekly based validation. Furthermore, different assumptions in the retrieval of ground-based and satellite HCHO columns might also skew the dataset, since negative HCHO columns are absent in the FTIR dataset, whereas they are present in the TROPOMI dataset.

In our inversion scheme, we apply the bias correction based on FTIR data (Fig. 4), given by

(6) [ TROPOMI ] BC = 1.48 × [ TROPOMI ] - 1.40 × 10 15 molec . cm - 2 ,

where [TROPOMI] and [TROPOMI]BC are the retrieved and bias-corrected (weekly averaged) HCHO total columns, respectively. This FTIR-based relation of Eq. (6) is in good agreement with previously published bias corrections of the TROPOMI HCHO product using FTIR (Vigouroux et al.2020) and MAX-DOAS data (De Smedt et al.2021). As illustrated in Fig. 5a and b, the FTIR-based correction brings small changes to the HCHO levels in northern Europe but induces substantial increases (30 % to 40 % over emission sources) in southern Europe.

Figure 5HCHO columns over the European domain averaged from May to September for the years 2018 to 2021. Panels (a) and (b) show TROPOMI HCHO columns without bias correction and with the FTIR-based bias correction from Eq. (6), respectively. The latter is used as constraints in the inversion framework. Panels (c–d) contain modeled HCHO columns computed by the MAGRITTEv1.1 model. Panel (c) depicts the a priori HCHO columns, and (d) shows the columns based on the optimized emissions resulting from the top-down inversion. Finally, (e) is the absolute difference between the bias-corrected TROPOMI observations (b) and the a priori model (c), and (f) shows the absolute difference between (b) and the optimized model (d).

5 Inversion results

5.1 Modeled HCHO columns

The a priori and a posteriori model columns are shown in Fig. 5c and d, respectively. The a priori column distribution is calculated based on a priori emission inventories as described in Sect. 3. The model computes the HCHO column at the time of the TROPOMI overpass. The modeled vertical profile is then convolved with the averaging kernel of the satellite observation, and a smoothed total column is derived. We note that this implies that model columns are calculated only whenever valid satellite measurements are available, and the weekly model averages are sampled as the observations. The modeled columns can therefore be directly compared to the TROPOMI HCHO columns of Fig. 5b. The a priori model provides relatively good agreement with the HCHO observations in terms of spatial distribution with, on average, higher columns in southern Europe ( compared to the north (5× Some anthropogenic sources appear to be overestimated in the model, such as the Ruhr area in Germany. Moreover, comparison of the a priori model with the bias-corrected data shows that the a priori columns in southern Europe are generally too low (see Fig. 5e).

The optimized HCHO columns inferred through inversion of the bias-corrected TROPOMI HCHO columns are shown in Fig. 5d. Because the bias-corrected columns are much higher than in the a priori model in southern Europe, the inversion leads to large column increases of about 2 to 3× in the Mediterranean region. This can also be seen in Fig. 5e and f, which illustrate the absolute difference between the bias-corrected observations (Fig. 5b) and either the a priori model or the a posteriori model. The a priori difference map shows the model underestimation in southern Europe clearly. This is largely corrected for by the optimization, which shows good agreement between model and observations, especially in mainland Europe. In northern Europe and over the seas, differences of the order of 1× are seen. Even higher discrepancies are found over the northern seas (>65 N), which is caused by the large uncertainties in the satellite product and by the filtering out of low weekly columns (<3× This filter leads to a positive bias of the temporally averaged columns in regions where the columns are frequently lower than this threshold, as is the case over northern seas and Scandinavia. Furthermore, whereas the precision of weekly averaged TROPOMI columns amounts to only a few percent of the column and plays a negligible role in southern Europe, the high cloudiness and low columns found at high latitudes lead to larger random errors, sometimes of the same order as the columns, thereby aggravating the potential bias due to the threshold. The inversion results in these regions should therefore be considered with caution. We also note that oceanic data are excluded from the inversion because the columns over oceans are mostly due to the oxidation of methane (Stavrakou et al.2009). Consequently, the comparison between model and observations does not change significantly over the northern seas. We note however a substantial reduction in the bias over the Mediterranean and Black seas, due to emission changes over land and subsequent transport of HCHO precursors (or of intermediates in their oxidation mechanisms) to those areas.

Figure 6 shows time series of observed and modeled HCHO columns in 2019 for four regions in the European domain: Germany, central Europe, Iberia, and Anatolia. The optimized model based on our standard inversion described in Sect. 3 uses weekly TROPOMI observations (orange curve). Figure 6 includes the results of an inversion using monthly TROPOMI HCHO columns in order to evaluate the effect of temporal averaging on the top-down emissions (see also scenario 10 in Sect. 6 and Table 3). The emission increments of the monthly inversion run are applied to the weekly a priori HCHO columns in order to allow for comparison with the standard weekly inversion results.

Figure 6(a) Regions used for averaging in the following panels. (b–e) Weekly time series of HCHO columns of TROPOMI observations (black), MAGRITTE a priori model (blue), top-down weekly inversion (orange), and top-down monthly inversion (purple). The HCHO columns cover May to September for the year 2019. In each panel, the Pearson correlation coefficient is indicated for the a priori model (blue) and weekly (orange) and monthly (purple) inversion results.

Over Germany, the TROPOMI HCHO columns have a larger variability than the a priori model. The weekly optimization improves the model by increasing the HCHO columns during peaks and decreasing the model during troughs in the observed time series. The monthly inversion does not affect the weekly variability in the model; therefore the Pearson correlation coefficient of the monthly optimization (R=0.84) is lower than the standard weekly optimization (R=0.92). The second region of Fig. 6 focuses on central Europe, more precisely the Pannonian Basin. This region was chosen for its biogeographical and climatological uniformity, as it is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges. Similar to Germany, we find a large improvement in the correlation coefficient for the weekly top-down inversion (from 0.92 to 0.98), where the high and low HCHO columns in the time series are much better reproduced. For the regions Iberia and Anatolia, both in southern Europe, the results of the weekly and monthly optimizations are similar. The TROPOMI HCHO columns are much higher than the a priori model, which is partly due to the effect of the bias correction. The top-down HCHO columns follow the high observed columns as expected. Due to the relatively constant meteorology in southern Europe (i.e., high temperatures and few clouds), the variability in HCHO columns is much lower. Consequently, the difference between the weekly and monthly inversion run is relatively small.

5.2 Top-down emissions

Figure 7a shows the a priori isoprene emissions of the MEGAN–MOHYCAN inventory, which were used as input for the top-down inversion. High-emission regions generally have a warm climate, along with vegetation consisting of strong isoprene emitters. The a priori emissions are heavily dependent on assumptions regarding the variable and uncertain emission factors of the different vegetation types, as well as on the land-use map that enters the emission model. Figure 7b shows top-down isoprene emissions optimized based on bias-corrected TROPOMI HCHO columns. The emission enhancement is presented in Fig. 7c, calculated as the ratio of the top-down emissions over the a priori emissions. The increment map shows increases in the emissions across the majority of the domain, except for some regions between 50 and 60 N. Especially in southern Europe, the data suggest higher isoprene emissions in order to explain the high observed TROPOMI HCHO columns. Similarly, at high latitudes there are increased top-down isoprene emissions, but this is likely due to the positive bias in this region introduced by the filtering of low TROPOMI HCHO columns.

Figure 7Results of the inversion of isoprene emissions over Europe. Panel (a) shows isoprene emissions from the MEGAN–MOHYCAN inventory used as input for the inversion. Panel (b) shows the optimized emissions resulting from our top-down inversion. Panel (c) shows the enhancement map derived as the ratio of the optimized and the a priori emissions (b divided by a). The data are averaged over the summer months (May to September) from 2018 to 2021.

Table 2 presents the annual emissions in the European domain. The inversion strongly increases isoprene emissions, by more than a factor of 2 with respect to the a priori emissions (from 8.1 Tg yr−1 in MEGAN–MOHYCAN to 18.5 Tg yr−1 in the top-down emissions). In a previous inversion study by Bauwens et al. (2016) using OMI data, only a mild increase in isoprene emissions was derived over Europe (from 6.8 to 8.4 Tg yr−1, for a slightly different domain). This is mainly due to the absence of a bias correction in their inversion study. The results of Bauwens et al. (2016) suggested top-down isoprene emissions across the domain of 8.4 Tg yr−1 over the years 2005 to 2013, i.e., 23 % higher than their a priori biogenic emissions. The majority of the biogenic emissions take place in southern Europe, where the high observed HCHO columns lead to a strong increase in the top-down emissions in our inversion. The time series of isoprene emissions in Europe (Fig. 8a) shows that the biogenic emission increases mainly occur during the summer peak from June to August with up to a factor of 3 higher emissions. As expected, the emissions are close to zero during winter. We note that the emissions are optimized using TROPOMI observations only during summer months, but due to temporal correlations imposed in the inversion, the emissions during winter months are also affected.

Table 2Average annual emissions in Tg yr−1 of the three categories of VOC emissions in the a priori and optimized models for the years 2018 to 2021.

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Figure 8Interannual time series of monthly biogenic emissions (a), biomass burning VOC emissions (b), and anthropogenic VOC emissions (c) across the European domain in teragrams. The a priori values are denoted by the solid lines, and the optimized values are shown by the dotted lines.


Besides isoprene, monoterpenes are also impacted by the inversion. A large increase in their emissions is derived, from 3.9 to 6.9 Tg yr−1. The enhancement of the total monoterpene emissions is smaller than for isoprene because a large fraction of those emissions originate from boreal forests, where the emission increments are much lower (see also Fig. S7). Methanol, another prominent BVOC with a total source of ca. 6.3 Tg yr−1 over the model domain in MEGAN–MOHYCAN, is not optimized by the inversion. Due to its long lifetime of several days, it mainly contributes to the background HCHO column and is therefore less suitable for top-down inversion studies using HCHO column data.

The biomass burning VOC emissions of the top-down model are on average higher than the QFED a priori inventory. The most prominent source of biomass burning VOCs in Europe is agricultural waste burning. This is prominent in the time series in Fig. 8b, which shows peaks around April and September mainly due to agricultural fires in Ukraine and Russia (see Fig. S3). Figure 8b also shows substantial year-to-year variability, in which the top-down inversion does not always lead to changes in the emissions with respect to the QFED a priori inventory. However, the data on average lead to higher top-down fire emissions which are mainly caused by increased agricultural fire VOC emissions in eastern Europe and the Danube river valley, as can be seen in Fig. S3c.

In terms of anthropogenic emissions, the optimized fluxes are lower than the a priori fluxes from CAMS-GLOB-ANT by about 20 %. This decrease is driven by generally lower observed HCHO columns over cities and industrial regions. Furthermore, the TROPOMI HCHO columns are lower than that of the a priori model during colder weeks (see Fig. 6), which suggests a larger relative contribution of biogenic emissions to the total column. Figure S4 shows that the optimized emissions are lower than CAMS-GLOB-ANT for most countries at mid-latitudes (between roughly 45 and 55 N), with the largest differences occurring in Germany. The effect of the imposed country-dependent spatial correlations of the emissions parameters is clearly visible, as the emission increments of anthropogenic VOCs are similar within country borders. The time series in Fig. 8c depicts a weak seasonal cycle with higher emissions in winter compared to summer. This seasonal cycle is preserved in the top-down fluxes, but with lower values during the whole year.

5.3 Model evaluation

We evaluate the model against ground-based remote sensing and in situ measurements. For the FTIR and MAX-DOAS comparisons, we select model data at the time of the measurement at the 0.5×0.5 pixel in which the station is located. The model profile is smoothed using the averaging kernel of the measurement. Comparison of the optimized model to FTIR station data shows an improvement with respect to the a priori model at Bremen, Garmisch, Karlsruhe, and Paris, as shown by the reduction in average absolute deviations (AADs) at those stations (see Fig. 9). The opposite effect occurs at the northern stations (Kiruna, Sodankylä, and St. Petersburg), where the inversion worsens the agreement between model and data. More specifically, model overestimations are found at high-latitude Scandinavian sites, invalidating the emission increases in northern Scandinavia. At St. Petersburg, the TROPOMI HCHO columns are generally very low, leading to a decrease in the modeled HCHO columns after the inversion, yet FTIR data suggest higher HCHO columns. The reduction in emissions that follows from the inversion in this region (around 60 N; see Fig. 7) is therefore not corroborated by the FTIR data at St. Petersburg.

Figure 9Time series of monthly averages of observed FTIR and a priori and a posteriori modeled HCHO columns from May to September. The modeled columns are calculated using either a priori or optimized emissions. The model columns are smoothed using the averaging kernels of the collocated measurements. The average absolute deviation (AAD) between the observations and model, calculated as the mean of |HCHOobs-HCHOmodel| in units of, is given at the top right of each panel.


The comparison of the model columns with the MAX-DOAS measurements of stations listed in Table 1 is shown in Fig. 10. For all stations (except Athens), the optimized HCHO columns are not improved with respect to the a priori column, and the average absolute difference is increased at several locations. The MAX-DOAS data show a worsening of the optimized model over Germany and the Benelux, whereas the FTIR data suggest an improvement of the model over Germany and France. The MAX-DOAS stations (except Athens) are located in regions where the a priori HCHO model columns are on average larger than the observations, which leads to a decrease in VOC emissions and HCHO columns after optimization. On the other hand, the a priori model underestimates the MAX-DOAS data (Fig. 10). This discrepancy suggests a potential issue with the vertical profile of HCHO in the MAGRITTE model, i.e., too large background concentrations at higher altitudes, to which TROPOMI retrievals are much more sensitive than MAX-DOAS (Fig. 3). This overestimation causes the decrease in anthropogenic VOC emissions over Germany and the Benelux (see Fig. S4), leading to the discrepancy with MAX-DOAS observations. On the other hand, the higher emissions of the optimized model in southern Europe are corroborated by the Athens MAX-DOAS data. This station is located at an altitude of 500 m, which is higher than the city itself. Since MAX-DOAS observations only consider upward-looking elevation angles, an important part of the HCHO column is not measured. We take this into account by only including part of the model column at 500 m altitude and higher for the comparison. The increased biogenic VOC emissions around Athens lead to increased HCHO mixing ratios of the model above 500 m altitude, which agrees with the MAX-DOAS data at Athens.

Figure 10Same as Fig. 9, but with MAX-DOAS HCHO columns.


As an additional evaluation, we compare the modeled near-surface HCHO concentrations to in situ HCHO data in Fig. 11 and Table S1. We sample the model at the pixel and vertical layer corresponding to the coordinates and altitude (above sea level) of the station and compute the ratio of monthly averaged daytime (usually 8–12 h) modeled concentration to the corresponding monthly averaged collocated in situ measurements. The ratio is computed using a climatological average if all observations are dated before May 2018 (see Table 1). We find that for the two Spanish stations (San Pablo de los Montes and Campisábalos), the a priori model surface concentration is already higher than the measurements. This discrepancy is increased even further after the optimization. As for the other southern European stations, we find improvements in the south of France (La Tardière and Peyrusse Vieille) and minor improvements for the Italian stations (Ispra and Montelibretti), where the a priori model is about 25 % too low, but the optimized model is 10 % to 20 % higher than the observations. For the stations located at higher latitudes, we generally see a small effect of the inversion on the optimized model, with the a priori model performing better for the Waldhof and Brotjacklriegel stations. We note that some caution is needed for comparisons that are not temporally collocated (all except LAH, PAB, PEY, and TAR; see Table 1), since meteorology has an important effect on HCHO concentrations, and for the stations located in mountainous terrain (PAB, CAM, BRO, DON, and SCH), due to local orography-induced transport patterns impacting the concentrations.

Figure 11Comparison between in situ measurements and near-surface concentrations from the a priori simulation (a) and from the optimized model (b). The data are monthly averaged, and only data from May to September are included in the ratio calculation. The color of the station symbol represents the median ratio of the model concentration and the station concentration. The ratios calculated with the a priori and optimized model are given in Table S1. Stations with data after 2018 use collocated model concentrations for the comparison. For other stations with only older data, climatological averages are used (see Table 1).

To summarize, the optimized model provides better agreement with the FTIR stations below about 55 N and with the only southern MAX-DOAS station, Athens. The other MAX-DOAS stations located in Germany and the Benelux display higher HCHO columns than the a priori model, yet the (bias-corrected) TROPOMI HCHO columns do not suggest an increase in the emissions in this area. The three FTIR stations in northern Europe compare better with the a priori than with the optimized model, thereby contradicting the emission increases in northern Scandinavia and the emission decreases in the St. Petersburg area. In southern Europe, we see large increases for biogenic emissions of the optimized model. This is corroborated by HCHO column measurements at the Athens station, although in situ measurements provide mixed results in Spain, France, and Italy.

6 Sensitivity inversions

The results of the top-down inversion are subject to uncertainties related to the model, the inversion setup, the a priori inventories, and the observations. These uncertainties are difficult to quantify. In this section, we present a range of 11 sensitivity inversions aimed at evaluating the effect of different sources of uncertainty on the derived top-down emissions. We provide an overview of the different sensitivity runs (S1 to S11) in Table 3. Each sensitivity run was performed for the year 2019, and their annual emissions are shown in Fig. 12.

Figure 12Bar chart of annual emissions of the a priori inventory, the standard inversion run (S0), and the sensitivity inversions (S1 to S11) for biogenic emissions (a), biomass burning emissions (b), and anthropogenic VOC emissions (c). The emissions are calculated for the year 2019.


The first scenario (S1) described in Table 3 is an inversion constrained by TROPOMI HCHO columns without bias correction. The data used to constrain the inversion in this scenario are depicted in Fig. 5a, as opposed to Fig. 5b for the standard inversion scenario (S0). Because the bias correction leads to much higher HCHO columns over strongly emitting regions ( 40 % increase), the S1 run has much lower emissions across Europe for all emission categories. Since the effect of the bias correction is strongest in southern Europe, the biogenic emissions are most affected, with the S1 scenario having 3 times lower isoprene emissions compared to the standard run (6.7 Tg yr−1 versus 18.3 Tg yr−1 for S0). The S1 results highlight the strong impact of TROPOMI observations on the top-down emissions, and therefore the importance of a comprehensive and homogeneous validation dataset.

Next, we evaluate the effect of different a priori inventories on the inversion results. In scenario S2, we substitute MEGAN–MOHYCAN biogenic emissions with the CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 inventory (Sindelarova et al.2022). Figure 13a shows the isoprene emissions of CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 gridded to 0.5×0.5 and averaged from May to September in 2019. On average, the CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 isoprene emissions are much lower than MEGAN–MOHYCAN, with annual total emissions of 4.1 Tg for CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 versus 7.9 Tg for MEGAN–MOHYCAN. Furthermore, the distribution of emissions is very different, especially in Turkey, which is a major source region of biogenic emissions in MEGAN–MOHYCAN. Those differences in a priori emissions have a major effect on the optimized top-down emissions, which are shown in Fig. 13b. The optimized total isoprene emissions are more than 30 % lower in the S2 run, while the effect on the optimized fire and anthropogenic VOC emissions is limited. Although the top-down biogenic emissions of the S2 run are lower than in the standard S0 run, we still see a large increase with respect to the a priori emissions of about 300 %. Similar to the standard case, the emissions are mainly increased in southern Europe and most heavily in Turkey by over a factor of 10 (see Fig. 13c).

Figure 13Same as Fig. 7, but for scenario S2 using the CAMS-GLOB-BIOv3.1 inventory as a priori biogenic emissions (a). Panel (b) shows the optimized emissions of scenario S2, and (c) shows the ratio of the optimized and the a priori emissions (b divided by a). The data are averaged over the summer months (May to September) in 2019.

In scenario S3, the a priori biomass burning emissions are substituted with the GFED4s inventory (van der Werf et al.2017). The GFED4s VOC emissions are based on a burned area approach and are on average lower than the QFED2.4 emissions used in our standard inversion, based on a fire radiative power approach (Darmenov and da Silva2015). However, there is good agreement between the two inventories in terms of temporal and spatial occurrence of fire events, as they both make use of MODIS satellite data (Pan et al.2020). The lower GFED4s emissions of scenario S3 result in lower top-down fire emissions, totaling 2.1 Tg VOC for the S3 run as opposed to 3.5 Tg VOC for the standard S0 run. Since biomass burning is not a dominant emission source of VOCs in Europe, the effect of differences in a priori emissions has only a limited impact on the top-down biogenic and anthropogenic VOC emissions.

The S4 scenario tests an inversion using biomass burning emission factors from Akagi et al. (2011), instead of emission factors from Andreae (2019) used in the standard inversion. Using the Akagi et al. (2011) emission factors, the total emission of pyrogenic VOCs is decreased by about 20 % in the a priori and optimized emissions. This can be mainly attributed to differences in emissions for agricultural waste burning. Specifically, the emission factors of large alkanes (butane or higher) are substantially lower in the S4 run. As for the S3 scenario, the lower a priori emissions lead to lower a posteriori pyrogenic emissions. The impact of this sensitivity run on the optimized biogenic and anthropogenic emissions is small.

(Sindelarova et al.2022)(van der Werf et al.2017)Akagi et al. (2011)Wennberg et al. (2018)

Table 3Sensitivity inversions conducted in this study and annual VOC emissions in Tg yr−1 over the model domain. AVOC stands for anthropogenic VOC.

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Model assumptions represent an important source of uncertainty in the inversions. In the next scenarios, we evaluate the effects of some of these assumptions on the top-down results. The S5 and S6 runs evaluate the effect of the assumed errors in the emission parameters of the a priori inventories by decreasing and increasing the errors, respectively. As described in Sect. 3, because bottom-up inventories have no quantified uncertainties, we assume relative errors in the flux parameters corresponding to a factor of 2.5 for biogenic and biomass burning emissions and a factor of 2 for anthropogenic emissions. By decreasing (increasing) these errors, the inversion will be less (more) inclined to depart from the a priori values in order to match the observations. Indeed, the S6 run, in which the errors are increased by a factor of 1.5, differs more strongly from the a priori inventories compared to the standard S0 run. Similarly, the S5 run with 1.5 times lower errors leads to smaller increases in biogenic emissions and smaller decreases in anthropogenic emissions. The effect of changing the error parameters is strongest for the anthropogenic emissions (∼20 %), though overall the effect of changing the errors is limited (less than 10 % for biogenic emissions).

Additionally, the correlations between errors in biogenic and pyrogenic emissions are assumed to decay exponentially with distance between the grid cells, for which the decorrelation length is taken to be 200 km (see Eqs. 4 and 5). The effect of the decorrelation length is equivalent to smoothing the emissions by introducing a spatial correlation of the emission parameters. In sensitivity inversion scenarios S7 and S8, we test the effect of a shorter (100 km) and longer (400 km) decorrelation length on the inversion results. Increasing the decorrelation length leads to overall increased biogenic emissions, since the increased emission parameters in southern Europe are forced over longer distances. Conversely, the S7 run with half the decorrelation length leads to about 10 % lower biogenic emissions. As expected, the anthropogenic emissions are less affected by these changes.

Besides the inversion setup, the chemical mechanism is an additional source of uncertainty. In particular, the oxidation of isoprene by OH radicals is a complex process, and the initial oxidation steps are still an active research topic (Müller et al.2019; Møller et al.2019; Novelli et al.2020; Schwantes et al.2020; Medeiros et al.2022). For example, the isomerization rates of specific isoprene peroxy radicals remain uncertain. In the standard run, we apply 1,6 H-shift rates based on the LIM1 mechanism (Peeters et al.2014), in agreement with a recent laboratory determination (Novelli et al.2020). These rates are higher than those given in Müller et al. (2019), which were derived by Wennberg et al. (2018) based on experimental work at Caltech (Teng et al.2017). The lower isomerization rate leads to a higher HCHO yield from the oxidation of isoprene, which therefore leads to higher HCHO columns. The reason lies in the lower HCHO yields from the further oxidation of isomerization products like the hydroperoxy aldehydes (Peeters et al.2014; Müller et al.2019). The optimization of this scenario (S9) results in total isoprene emissions of 17.2 Tg yr−1, i.e., 6 % lower than in the standard run (18.3 Tg yr−1). This reduction is largely compensated by higher pyrogenic and anthropogenic emissions, such that the total VOC emission of S9 is only slightly (2 %) lower than in S0.

In all previous scenarios (S0 to S9), weekly averaged TROPOMI HCHO columns were used to constrain the emissions, and we update the emissions at weekly increments. In the S10 run, we evaluate the impact of temporal averaging by using monthly averaged HCHO columns and monthly emission parameters in the inversion. In Sect. 5.1, we showed that the monthly inversion is less capable of matching the weekly variability in the HCHO time series (see Fig. 6). Furthermore, the emissions of the S10 run are closer to the a priori model. For example, the annual anthropogenic VOC emissions of the S10 run are less decreased (12 %) with respect to the a priori inventory compared to the weekly S0 run (21 %), whereas the biogenic emission increase shows the opposite effect. This can be expected since the monthly inversion has about 4 times fewer observational constraints than the weekly inversion, which results in smaller departures from the a priori. The number of emission parameters is also lower in the monthly inversion, but this effect is mitigated due to temporal correlations between emission parameters. Additionally, the monthly inversion is less capable of disentangling the biogenic and anthropogenic emission sources, since it averages out meteorological variability at weekly timescales, which is a major driver of biogenic emission variability. The Benelux region provides an interesting example, since the weekly inversion displays increased biogenic emissions, whereas the monthly inversion leads to decreased biogenic emissions. The strong variability in the HCHO columns in the Benelux is displayed in Fig. 2. In order to explain the large fluctuations in the observations, biogenic emissions are increased by the inversion during warm weeks, and anthropogenic emissions are decreased in order to account for the low columns during cold weeks.

Over northern Europe, the results of the monthly inversion are very different from the standard weekly inversion. In particular, the S10 optimization does not display the increase in the emissions above 60 N (see Figs. S5 and S6). As previously discussed, the increased biogenic emissions in Scandinavia in the standard run are due to the filtering out of low HCHO columns (<3×, implying that only high columns (i.e., positive outliers) remain in the dataset. However, the monthly averaging of the S10 run reduces the noise in the TROPOMI HCHO columns, leading to less filtering of low values and therefore to lower average HCHO columns at high latitudes. Consequently, the monthly inversion does not show an increase in emissions in Scandinavia and provides more reliable results in this region. In conclusion, the weekly inversion provides generally improved results compared to the monthly inversion, except at northern latitudes (above about 60 N).

Another important source of uncertainty in the emission inversion is the effect of clouds. To address this, the standard inversion includes a strict cloud filter which removes scenes with a cloud fraction larger than 0.2. However, this might imply that the emission inversion is biased towards cloud-free conditions. To evaluate this effect, we include a sensitivity run constrained by TROPOMI HCHO columns without the strict cloud filter (run S11). In the unfiltered TROPOMI dataset, the condition for QA (above 0.5) is still applied, which removes scenes with cloud fractions larger than 0.4. Because the observational dataset is modified for this run, we have recalculated the bias correction based on FTIR data, with the same methodology as that used in Sect. 4. The bias correction for this dataset is adjusted to [TROPOMI*]BC=1.40×[TROPOMI*]-0.63×, where [TROPOMI*] denotes the TROPOMI HCHO columns without a strict cloud filter.

The S11 sensitivity run leads to very small differences in total emissions compared to the standard run. Even though the cloud filter has a large impact on the TROPOMI HCHO columns, recalibrating the bias correction results in minor changes in the HCHO columns in southern Europe. Consequently, the emission patterns in southern Europe, which dominate the biogenic emissions over the domain, do not change much with respect to the standard run. In general, the bias-corrected [TROPOMI*] HCHO columns are lower over land masses and higher over seas with respect to the filtered dataset, with the largest differences occurring at mid-latitude regions. This leads to on average slightly lower biogenic and anthropogenic VOC emissions in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany for the S11 run. However, as can be seen in Fig. 12, the total emissions do not change substantially, and overall the effect of the cloud filter on the inversion results is small.

To summarize, by far the largest uncertainty in our top-down emissions arises from the application of the bias correction. This emphasizes the importance of continuous and high-quality validation of the HCHO satellite product. This is especially important in southern Europe, where the bias correction has the biggest impact and where validation data are scarce. The biogenic a priori inventory also plays an important role in the inversion, mainly due to the large differences among the available bottom-up inventories. The range of different inversion settings and model parameters that we have tested results in typical differences of roughly 10 % to 20 % in the final total emission fluxes, as can be seen in Fig. 12.

7 Conclusions

We have performed a comprehensive top-down inversion of VOC emissions over Europe from 2018 to 2021 constrained by TROPOMI HCHO columns. We have used the MAGRITTEv1.1 chemistry transport model and its adjoint to optimize biogenic, pyrogenic, and anthropogenic VOC emissions at a weekly temporal resolution. The inversion suggests a strong underestimation of MEGAN emissions, especially in southern Europe, with the total annual isoprene flux increasing from 8.1 to 18.5 Tg yr−1. This large increase is driven by the high (bias-corrected) HCHO columns observed by TROPOMI during the summer months in southern Europe. The biomass burning VOC emissions show a slight increase (from 2.3 to 2.6 Tg yr−1) in the inversion, with a strong interannual variability in the emission increments. The anthropogenic VOC emissions are decreased by the inversion (from 16.9 to 14.0 Tg yr−1), with the main reduction occurring over Germany.

Comparison of the TROPOMI HCHO columns and ground-based FTIR HCHO columns shows that TROPOMI HCHO columns are generally too low, especially for high columns. We derived a linear relationship characterizing the bias against FTIR data at European stations (excluding mountain sites), which agrees with the bias correction reported in previous validation studies using global FTIR and MAX-DOAS networks (Vigouroux et al.2020; De Smedt et al.2021). Additionally, we used FTIR, MAX-DOAS, and in situ data to validate the top-down model results and found that the optimized model performs well for FTIR stations below about 55 N. In northern Europe, where the signal-to-noise ratio of TROPOMI data is usually low, our top-down emissions are too high due to the filtering of low HCHO columns in the inversion. At MAX-DOAS stations, the optimized model shows no improvement, or even a worsening of the comparison with ground-based measurements, except at Athens. The MAX-DOAS data suggest that the emissions are too low in the Benelux and Germany, specifically during colder and cloudy days. Finally, the comparison with in situ data shows improved results at several locations (south of France, Italy) but too-high concentrations of the model at other places, including the Spanish stations. These mixed results might reflect the limited representativeness of point measurements and/or difficulties with the model, e.g., regarding boundary layer mixing.

To evaluate the robustness of the inversion results, we have performed a range of sensitivity inversions. As expected, the top-down emissions are very sensitive to the observed HCHO columns and therefore also to the bias correction of the TROPOMI data. This highlights the importance of comprehensive and extended validation studies, using network remote sensing data and/or airborne validation campaigns. We note a scarcity of validation data in southern Europe, although at the time of writing, there are plans for FTIR measurement sites in Italy and Cyprus. Additionally, we find that the choice of a priori biogenic emissions plays an important role due to large differences between available bottom-up emission inventories. Other model-related effects on the inversion induce differences of up to 10 % in the final annual total emissions.

Finally, the inversion using weekly averages was found to provide better results than the monthly inversion run, except in the northernmost part of the continent. Especially regions with variable meteorology are better treated by the weekly inversion due to the strong fluctuations in the HCHO columns. As the HCHO data quality continues to improve with the advent of more advanced satellite missions, the observational constraints on the inversion become more tight, allowing for higher spatio-temporal resolution of the inversion studies. In this European inversion study, we found that weekly averages and a spatial resolution of 0.5 are convenient in terms of signal-to-noise ratio and data availability. However, it may be possible to perform higher-resolution inversions in other regions in the world characterized by strong emissions (hence a strong HCHO signal) and moderate or low cloudiness.

Data availability

The TROPOMI HCHO dataset is a Copernicus operational product and is available at (Copernicus Sentinel-5P2018). The FTIR and MAX-DOAS datasets can be requested by contacting the PIs of each station. In situ data from the EMEP network are available at the EBAS data portal (, EBAS2024). The top-down biogenic and biomass burning emission datasets generated in this study are available at the SEEDS project data portal (, SEEDS2024) and at the BIRA-IASB emission portal (, Oomen et al.2024). The MEGAN–MOHYCAN bottom-up inventory is also available at (MEGAN-MOHYCAN2024). The FTIR data were made available as part of the PRODEX TROVA-E2 Belspo project (2021–2023).


The supplement related to this article is available online at:

Author contributions

GMO carried out the analysis and wrote the manuscript. JFM and TS designed the inversion scheme and performed the optimizations. IDS described the TROPOMI HCHO data in Sect. 2.1. TB, RK, MM, MP, ARö, YT, and CV provided the FTIR measurements. CV provided the description of the FTIR datasets in Sect. 2.2. MMF, UF, FH, AM, AP, ARi, MVR, and TW provided the FRM4DOAS measurements. AM provided the description of the FRM4DOAS data (Sect. 2.3). All authors read and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

At least one of the (co-)authors is a member of the editorial board of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. The peer-review process was guided by an independent editor, and the authors also have no other competing interests to declare.


Publisher’s note: Copernicus Publications remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims made in the text, published maps, institutional affiliations, or any other geographical representation in this paper. While Copernicus Publications makes every effort to include appropriate place names, the final responsibility lies with the authors.


We thank the two anonymous referees for their constructive remarks that helped improve this paper.

Financial support

This research was performed as part of the SEEDS project funded by the European Commission under the H2020 program (grant no. 101004318, 2021–2023). The Paris TCCON site has received funding from Sorbonne Université, the French research center CNRS, the French space agency CNES, and Région île-de-France. This study also received funding from the FRM4DOAS(-2.0) project under ESA contract numbers 4000118181/16/I-EF and 4000135355/21/I-DT-Ir.

Review statement

This paper was edited by Qiang Zhang and reviewed by two anonymous referees.


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Short summary
Natural emissions from vegetation have a profound impact on air quality for their role in the formation of harmful tropospheric ozone and organic aerosols, yet these emissions are highly uncertain. In this study, we quantify emissions of organic gases over Europe using high-quality satellite measurements of formaldehyde. These satellite observations suggest that emissions from vegetation are much higher than predicted by models, especially in southern Europe.

Final-revised paper