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The concentrations of most tropospheric pollutants and trace gases are kept in check by their reactions with hydroxyl radicals (OH). OH is a short-lived, highly reactive species that is produced in the atmosphere by photochemical processes, and regenerated in the chain of chemical reactions that follows the oxidative destruction of those molecules. These regeneration mechanisms were thought to be fairly well understood, but now Hofzumahaus et al. (p. 1702, published online 4 June) present evidence of a pathway not previously recognized. In a study of atmospheric composition in the Pearl River Delta, a highly polluted region of China, greatly elevated OH concentrations were observed without the correspondingly high levels of ozone expected from current models. Thus, OH concentrations may be augmented by a process that speeds the regeneration of OH without producing ozone.
The degradation of trace gases and pollutants in the troposphere is dominated by their reaction with hydroxyl radicals (OH). The importance of OH rests on its high reactivity, its ubiquitous photochemical production in the sunlit atmosphere, and most importantly on its regeneration in the oxidation chain of the trace gases. In the current understanding, the recycling of OH proceeds through HO2 reacting with NO, thereby forming ozone. A recent field campaign in the Pearl River Delta, China, quantified tropospheric OH and HO2 concentrations and turnover rates by direct measurements. We report that concentrations of OH were three to five times greater than expected, and we propose the existence of a pathway for the regeneration of OH independent of NO, which amplifies the degradation of pollutants without producing ozone.