PerspectiveAtmospheric Science

Aerosol Chemistry and the Deepwater Horizon Spill

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Science  11 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6022, pp. 1273-1274
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203019

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In Earth's atmosphere, particles smaller than 1 µm, known as aerosols, scatter incoming solar radiation and act as sites for condensation of water during cloud formation. Human activities can alter this population of particles, thereby affecting climate and air quality (1, 2). Our inability to accurately predict the composition and mass of atmospheric aerosols, however, is inhibiting progress in both areas. Understanding the formation of organic aerosols, a large class of submicrometer particles (3), has proven to be a challenge; laboratory experiments have previously not been reconciled with field measurements (4, 5). Recent theoretical frameworks point to the importance of semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs) and organic compounds of intermediate volatility (IVOCs) as precursors (6, 7), but investigators have lacked observational evidence. On page 1295 of this issue, de Gouw et al. (8) help to clarify the role of SVOCs and IVOCs in forming organic aerosols. Using airborne measurements taken downwind of the oil slick resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) accident in the Gulf of Mexico, they reveal that the oxidation of IVOCs and SVOCs in the atmosphere plays a dominant role in forming organic particles.