Sunlight-absorbing aerosol amplifies the seasonal cycle in low-cloud fraction over the southeast Atlantic

Jianhao Zhang, Paquita Zuidema

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The mean altitude of the smoke loading over the southeast Atlantic moves from the boundary layer in July to the free troposphere by October. This study details the month-by-month changes in cloud properties and the large-scale environment as a function of the biomass burning aerosol loading at Ascension Island (8 S, 14.5 W) from July to October, based on island measurements, satellite retrievals, and reanalysis. In July and August, the smoke loading predominantly varies within the boundary layer. During both months, the low-cloud fraction is less and is increasingly cumuliform when more smoke is present, with the exception of a late morning boundary layer deepening that encourages a short-lived cloud development. The meteorology varies little, suggesting aerosol-cloud interactions explain the cloudiness changes. September marks a transition month during which midlatitude disturbances can intrude into the Atlantic subtropics, constraining the free tropospheric aerosol closer to the African coast. Stronger boundary layer winds on cleaner days help deepen, dry, and cool much of the marine boundary layer compared to that on days with high smoke loadings, with stratocumulus reducing everywhere but at the northern deck edge. The September free troposphere is better mixed on smoky days compared to October. Longwave cooling rates, generated by a sharp water vapor gradient at the aerosol layer top, encourage a small-scale vertical mixing that could help maintain the well-mixed smoky September free troposphere. The October meteorology primarily varies as a function of the strength of the free tropospheric winds advecting aerosol offshore. The free tropospheric aerosol loading is less than in September, and the moisture variability is greater. Low-level clouds increase and are more stratiform in October when the smoke loadings are higher. The increased free tropospheric moisture can help sustain the clouds through a reduction in evaporative drying during cloud-top entrainment. Enhanced subsidence above the coastal upwelling region, increasing cloud droplet number concentrations, may further prolong cloud lifetime through microphysical interactions. Reduced subsidence underneath stronger free tropospheric winds at Ascension Island supports slightly higher cloud tops during smokier conditions. Overall, the monthly changes in the large-scale aerosol and moisture vertical structure act to amplify the seasonal cycle in low-cloud amount and morphology. This is climatically important, as cloudiness changes dominate changes in the top-of-atmosphere radiation budget.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11179-11199
Number of pages21
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 23 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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