10 Nov 2022
 | 10 Nov 2022

Constraining emissions of volatile organic compounds from western US wildfires with WE-CAN and FIREX-AQ airborne observations

Lixu Jin, Wade Permar, Vanessa Selimovic, Damien Ketcherside, Robert J. Yokelson, Rebecca S. Hornbrook, Eric C. Apel, I-Ting Ku, Jeffrey L. Collett Jr., Amy P. Sullivan, Daniel A. Jaffe, Jeffrey R. Pierce, Alan Fried, Matthew M. Coggon, Georgios I. Gkatzelis, Carsten Warneke, Emily V. Fischer, and Lu Hu

Abstract. The impact of biomass burning (BB) on the atmospheric burden of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is highly uncertain. Here we apply the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model (CTM) to constrain BB emissions in the western US at ~25 km resolution. Across three BB emission inventories widely used in CTMs, the total of 14 modeled BB VOC emissions in the western US agree with each other within 30–40 %. However, emissions for individual VOC differ by up to a factor of 5 (i.e., lumped ≥ C4 alkanes), driven by the regionally averaged emission ratios (ERs) among inventories. We further evaluate GEOS-Chem simulations with aircraft observations made during WE-CAN (Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption, and Nitrogen) and FIREX-AQ (Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality) field campaigns. Despite being driven by different global BB inventories or applying various injection height assumptions, GEOS-Chem simulations underpredict observed vertical profiles by a factor of 3–7. The model shows small-to-no bias for most species in low/no smoke conditions. We thus attribute the negative model biases mostly to underestimated BB emissions in these inventories. Tripling BB emissions in the model reproduces observed vertical profiles for primary compounds, i.e., CO, propane, benzene, and toluene. However, it shows no-to-less significant improvements for oxygenated VOCs, particularly formaldehyde, formic acid, acetic acid, and lumped ≥ C3 aldehydes, suggesting the model is missing secondary sources of these compounds in BB-impacted environments. The underestimation of primary BB emissions in inventories is likely attributable to underpredicted amounts of effective dry matter burned, rather than errors in fire detection, injection height, or ERs. We cannot rule out potential sub-grid uncertainties (i.e., not being able to fully resolve fire plumes) in the nested GEOS-Chem which could explain the model negative bias partially, though the back-of-the-envelope calculation and evaluation using longer-term ground measurements help increase the argument of the dry matter burned underestimation. The ERs of the 14 BB VOCs implemented in GEOS-Chem account for about half of the total 161 measured VOCs (~75 versus 150 ppb ppm-1). This reveals a significant amount of missing reactive organic carbon in widely-used BB emission inventories. Considering both uncertainties in effective dry matter burned and unmodeled VOCs, we infer that BB contributed up to 10 % in 2019 and 45 % in 2018 (240 and 2040 GgC) of the total VOC primary emission flux in the western US during these two fire seasons, compared to only 1–10 % in the standard GEOS-Chem.

Lixu Jin et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1107', Anonymous Referee #1, 22 Dec 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1107', Anonymous Referee #2, 07 Jan 2023
  • EC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1107 - Third reviewer comment', Holger Tost, 10 Jan 2023
  • AC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1107', Lixu Jin, 23 Mar 2023

Lixu Jin et al.


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Short summary
Air quality in the US has been improving since 1970 due to anthropogenic emission reduction. Those gains have been partly offset by increased wildfires pollution in the western US in the past 20 years. Still, we do not understand wildfire emissions well due to limited measurements. Here, we use a global transport model to evaluate and constrain current knowledge of wildfire emissions with recent observational constraints, showing the underestimation of wildfire emissions in the western US.