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Nature. 2009 Sep 17;461(7262):381-4. doi: 10.1038/nature08292.

New particle formation in forests inhibited by isoprene emissions.

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  • 1Institut ICG-2, Troposphäre.


It has been suggested that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are involved in organic aerosol formation, which in turn affects radiative forcing and climate. The most abundant VOCs emitted by terrestrial vegetation are isoprene and its derivatives, such as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes. New particle formation in boreal regions is related to monoterpene emissions and causes an estimated negative radiative forcing of about -0.2 to -0.9 W m(-2). The annual variation in aerosol growth rates during particle nucleation events correlates with the seasonality of monoterpene emissions of the local vegetation, with a maximum during summer. The frequency of nucleation events peaks, however, in spring and autumn. Here we present evidence from simulation experiments conducted in a plant chamber that isoprene can significantly inhibit new particle formation. The process leading to the observed decrease in particle number concentration is linked to the high reactivity of isoprene with the hydroxyl radical (OH). The suppression is stronger with higher concentrations of isoprene, but with little dependence on the specific VOC mixture emitted by trees. A parameterization of the observed suppression factor as a function of isoprene concentration suggests that the number of new particles produced depends on the OH concentration and VOCs involved in the production of new particles undergo three to four steps of oxidation by OH. Our measurements simulate conditions that are typical for forested regions and may explain the observed seasonality in the frequency of aerosol nucleation events, with a lower number of nucleation events during summer compared to autumn and spring. Biogenic emissions of isoprene are controlled by temperature and light, and if the relative isoprene abundance of biogenic VOC emissions increases in response to climate change or land use change, the new particle formation potential may decrease, thus damping the aerosol negative radiative forcing effect.

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