Is the ocean surface a source of nitrous acid (HONO) in the marine boundary layer?

Leigh R. Crilley, Louisa J. Kramer, Francis D. Pope, Chris Reed, James D. Lee, Lucy J. Carpenter, Lloyd D. J. Hollis, Stephen M. Ball, William J. Bloss

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Nitrous acid, HONO, is a key net photolytic precursor to OH radicals in the atmospheric boundary layer. As OH is the dominant atmospheric oxidant, driving the removal of many primary pollutants and the formation of secondary species, a quantitative understanding of HONO sources is important to predict atmospheric oxidising capacity. While a number of HONO formation mechanisms have been identified, recent work has ascribed significant importance to the dark, ocean-surface-mediated conversion of NO2 to HONO in the coastal marine boundary layer. In order to evaluate the role of this mechanism, here we analyse measurements of HONO and related species obtained at two contrasting coastal locations – Cabo Verde (Atlantic Ocean, denoted Cape Verde herein), representative of the clean remote tropical marine boundary layer, and Weybourne (United Kingdom), representative of semi-polluted northern European coastal waters. As expected, higher average concentrations of HONO (70 ppt) were observed in marine air for the more anthropogenically influenced Weybourne location compared to Cape Verde (HONO < 5 ppt). At both sites, the approximately constant ratio at night pointed to a low importance for the dark, ocean-surface-mediated conversion of NO2 into HONO, whereas the midday maximum in the ratios indicated significant contributions from photo-enhanced HONO formation mechanisms (or other sources). We obtained an upper limit to the rate coefficient of dark, ocean-surface HONO-to-NO2 conversion of CHONO = 0.0011 ppb h−1 from the Cape Verde observations; this is a factor of 5 lower than the slowest rate reported previously. These results point to significant geographical variation in the predominant HONO formation mechanisms in marine environments and indicate that caution is required when extrapolating the importance of such mechanisms from individual study locations to assess regional and/or global impacts on oxidising capacity. As a significant fraction of atmospheric processing occurs in the marine boundary layer, particularly in the tropics, better constraint of the possible ocean surface source of HONO is important for a quantitative understanding of chemical processing of primary trace gases in the global atmospheric boundary layer and associated impacts upon air pollution and climate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18213-18225
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2021


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