Long-term global observations of tropospheric formaldehyde retrieved from spaceborne nadir UV sensors
Thesis directors : Michel Van Roozendael (BIRA-IASB) and Michel Herman (ULB) :
Atmospheric formaldehyde (H2CO) is an intermediate product common to the degradation of many volatile organic compounds and therefore it is a central component of the tropospheric chemistry. While the global formaldehyde background is due to methane oxidation, emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) from biogenic, biomass burning and anthropogenic continental sources result in important and localised enhancements of the H2CO concentration. Recent spaceborne nadir sensors provide an opportunity to quantify the abundance of tropospheric formaldehyde at the global scale, and thereby to improve our knowledge of NMVOC emissions. This is essential for a better understanding of the processes that control the production and the evolution of tropospheric ozone, a key actor in air quality and climate change, but also of the hydroxyl radical OH, the main cleansing agent of our troposphere. For this reason, H2CO satellite observations are increasingly used in combination with tropospheric chemistry transport models to constrain NMVOC emission inventories in so-called top-down inversion approaches. Such inverse modelling applications require well characterised satellite data products consistently retrieved over long time periods. This work reports on global observations of formaldehyde columns retrieved from the successive solar backscatter nadir sensors GOME, SCIAMACHY and GOME-2, respectively launched in 1995, 2002 and 2006. The retrieval procedure is based on the differential optical absorption spectroscopy technique (DOAS). Formaldehyde concentrations integrated along the mean atmospheric optical path are derived from the recorded spectra in the UV region, and further converted to vertical columns by means of calculated air mass factors. These are obtained from radiative transfer simulations, accounting for cloud coverage, surface properties and best-guess H2CO profiles, the latter being derived from the IMAGES chemistry transport model. A key task of the thesis has consisted in the optimisation of the H2CO retrieval settings from multiple sensors, taking into account the instrumental specificities of each sounder. As a result of these efforts, a homogeneous dataset of formaldehyde columns covering the period from 1996 to 2010 has been created. This comes with a comprehensive error budget that treats errors related to the spectral fit of the columns as well as those associated to the air mass factor evaluation. The time series of the GOME, SCIAMACHY and GOME-2 H2CO observations is shown to be consistent and stable over time. In addition, GOME-2 brings a significant reduction of the noise on spatiotemporally averaged observations, leading to a better identification of the emission sources. Our dataset is used to study the regional formaldehyde distribution, as well as its seasonal and interannual variations, principally related to temperature changes and fire events, but also to anthropogenic activities. Moreover, building on the quality of our 15-year time series, we present the first analysis of long-term changes in the H2CO columns. Positive trends, in the range of 1.5 to 4% yr-1, are found in Asia, more particularly in Eastern China and India, and are related to the known increase of anthropogenic NMVOC emissions in these regions. Finally, our dataset has been extensively used in several studies, in particular by the BIRA-IASB modelling team to constrain NMVOC emission fluxes. The results demonstrate the high potential of satellite data as top-down constraint for biogenic and biomass burning NMVOC emission inventories, especially in Tropical ecosystems, in Southeastern Asia, and in Southeastern US.
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