Missing Gas-Phase Source of HONO Inferred from Zeppelin Measurements in the Troposphere

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Science  18 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6181, pp. 292-296
DOI: 10.1126/science.1248999

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On a Zeppelin

Nitrous acid (HONO) is an important atmospheric trace gas that acts as a precursor of tropospheric hydroxyl-radicals (OH), which is responsible for the self-cleansing capacity of the atmosphere and which also controls the concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as methane and ozone. How HONO is made is a mystery. Flying onboard a Zeppelin over the Po Valley in Northern Italy, Li et al. (p. 292) discovered HONO in the undisturbed morning troposphere, indicating that HONO must be produced there, rather than mixed from the surface. The high HONO concentrations are likely to have been formed by a light-dependent gas-phase source that probably consumed OH or HO2 radicals, which hints that the impact of HONO on the abundance of OH in the entire troposphere may be substantially overestimated.


Gaseous nitrous acid (HONO) is an important precursor of tropospheric hydroxyl radicals (OH). OH is responsible for atmospheric self-cleansing and controls the concentrations of greenhouse gases like methane and ozone. Due to lack of measurements, vertical distributions of HONO and its sources in the troposphere remain unclear. Here, we present a set of observations of HONO and its budget made onboard a Zeppelin airship. In a sunlit layer separated from Earth’s surface processes by temperature inversion, we found high HONO concentrations providing evidence for a strong gas-phase source of HONO consuming nitrogen oxides and potentially hydrogen oxide radicals. The observed properties of this production process suggest that the generally assumed impact of HONO on the abundance of OH in the troposphere is substantially overestimated.

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