Local Meteorology and Air Quality

During certain periods, the air here at Bodega Marine Lab (BML) has been stunningly clean — approaching what might be found in the remote ocean.  We’re finding, somewhat unsurprisingly, that local meteorology heavily affects the composition of particles that we sample at BML.

Here’s a case study from last weekend.  The scene: nothing but Pacific Ocean to our west, with cow pastures, campgrounds, and a popular vacation town to our east and south.  On sunny days under fair weather (high pressure) we experience a diurnal cycle of sea breeze and land breeze.  In aerosol particle terms, we see a very segmented signal: distinct ‘sea breeze’ and ‘land breeze’ aerosol characteristics.  Let’s have a look at the aerosol particle size distributions next to the surface meteorological conditions (from the nearby DRI met station on Bodega Marine Reserve):


Two days of aerosol particle size distributions (top two panels), carbon monoxide and solar radiation (3rd panel from top), ambient temperature and RH, with wind speed and direction on the bottom panel. The correlation of wind direction with the number concentration of small particles (2nd panel from top) is striking.

The sources of particles in air masses that we sample during the sea breeze (wind from 300 degrees) are ideally very limited: particles ejected from the ocean as sea spray, and particles that form through chemical reactions in the atmosphere just above the ocean.  In contrast, the land breeze (wind from about 140 degrees)  carries with it particles from a wide variety of sources: fossil fuel combustion, biomass combustion (fires), food cooking, and agriculture.

If you aren’t familiar with this kind of data, and you have a keen eye, you’ll start to figure out what’s happening just by thinking about what particle sources we’re sampling under the land breeze vs the sea breeze.  Since the sea breeze contains sea spray, you can see that sea spray aerosol particles are typically characterized by larger particle sizes (the colors in the top plot show higher concentrations near the 1 micron diameter mark), compared to the kinds of aerosols observed during the land breeze episodes (smaller proportions of larger particles compared with to the huge number of small particles).  It’s well known to atmospheric chemists that particles that are emitted directly from combustion sources (so-called ‘primary’ combustion aerosol) are very small, and tend to grow as they react with other trace gases in the atmosphere or are incorporated into clouds and fogs.

I can tell you anecdotally, that the composition of the particles is very different between these two episodes.  Sea salt particles (containing mainly sodium chloride) that travel through polluted air quickly react with the nitrogen oxide pollutants to form sodium nitrate particles.  The land breezes also bring with them fresh combustion particles.  You’ll notice some small spikes in carbon monoxide on either end of the sea breeze periods, just before and after the switch — those are actually from fires from local campgrounds directly upwind of us — it was a weekend in a vacation destination town after all!

One really exciting thing for a atmospheric chemist is to see their science in the world around them.  To live in and around the environment; to observe with your own senses what you’re observing with your instruments.  This is why I’m an environmental scientist.

-Doug Collins, Grad Student (UCSD)


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