Characterising the seasonal and geographical variability in tropospheric ozone, stratospheric influence and recent changes


Williams, R. S., Hegglin, M. I., Kerridge, B. J., Jöckel, P., Latter, B. G., and Plummer, D. A.: Characterising the seasonal and geographical variability in tropospheric ozone, stratospheric influence and recent changes, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 19, 3589–3620,, 2019.

Approximately 90 % of atmospheric ozone (O3) today resides in the stratosphere, which we know as the ozone layer (extending from ~15-35 km), where it plays a critical role in filtering out most of the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. The gradual formation of the ozone layer from around 600 million years ago was key in Earth’s evolutionary history, as it enabled life to flourish on land. Lesser known is the importance of the remaining ~ 10 % of atmospheric ozone, which is found in the troposphere and has implications for air quality, radiative forcing and the oxidation capacity of the troposphere. Whilst ozone is a pollutant at ground level, contributing to an estimated 6 million premature deaths globally per year, it also acts to cleanse the troposphere by breaking down a large number of pollutants, along with some greenhouse gases. Ozone is however a greenhouse gas in itself – where it has a maximum radiative forcing in the upper troposphere. It is an example of a non-well mixed gas, owing to its spatially and temporally highly varying sources and sinks, as well as its relatively short global mean tropospheric lifetime of about 3 weeks.

Figure 1 – Seasonal composites of monthly averaged 1000-450 hPa (0-5.5 km) subcolumn O3 (DU) for 2005-2010 (left to right) from (a) OMI, (b) EMAC minus OMI and (c) CMAM minus OMI. Circles denote (a) equivalent ozone-sonde derived subcolumn O3 (DU), (b) EMAC minus ozone-sonde differences and (c) CMAM minus ozone-sonde differences. All data were regridded to 2.5° resolution (~ 275 km). 1 Dobson Unit (DU) equates to a thickness of 0.01 mm if it were compressed at sea level.

A major source of tropospheric ozone is the photochemical reactions of emission precursors such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have both natural and anthropogenic sources, in addition to the natural influx of ozone-rich air from the stratosphere. The magnitude of these two competing influences has been poorly quantified until the recent advent of satellite observations and the development of comprehensive chemistry-climate models (CCMs), which simulate interactive chemistry and are stratospherically well-resolved.

Our study aimed to update and extend the knowledge of a previous key study (Lamarque et al., 1999), that investigated the role of stratosphere-troposphere exchange (STE) on tropospheric ozone, using two contemporary state-of-the-art CCMs (EMAC and CMAM) with stratospheric-tagged ozone tracers as a diagnostic. We first sought to validate the realism of the model ozone estimates with respect to satellite observations from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI), together with spatially and temporally limited vertical profile information provided from ozonesondes, which we resolved globally on a seasonal basis for the troposphere (1000-450 hPa) (Figure 1).

Whilst we found broad overall agreement with both sets of observations, an overall systematic bias in EMAC of + 2-8 DU (Dobson Units) and regionally and seasonally varying biases in CMAM (± 4 DU) can be seen in the respective difference panels (Figure 1b and 1c). A height-resolved comparison of the models with respect to regionally aggregated ozonesonde observations helped us to understand the origin of these model biases. We showed that apparent closer agreement in CMAM arises due to compensation of a low bias in photochemically produced ozone in the troposphere, resulting from the omission of a group of emission precursors in this model, by excessive smearing of ozone from the lower stratosphere due to an inherent high bias. This smearing is induced when accounting for the satellite observation geometry of OMI, necessary to ensure a direct comparison with vertically well-resolved models, which has limited vertical resolution due to its nadir field of view. The opposite was found to be the case in EMAC, with a high (low) bias in the troposphere (lower stratosphere) relative to ozonesondes. Given the similarity in the emission inventories used in both models, the high bias in this model indicates that excess in situ photochemical production from emission precursors is simulated within the interactive chemistry scheme. These findings emphasise the importance of understanding the origin of such biases, which can help prevent erroneous interpretations of subsequent model-based evaluations.

Noting these model biases, we next exploited the fine scale vertical resolution offered by the CCMs to investigate the regional and seasonal variability of the stratospheric influence. Analysis of the model stratospheric ozone (O3S) tracers revealed large differences in the burden of ozone in the extratropical upper troposphere-lower stratosphere (UTLS) region, with some 50-100 % more ozone in CMAM compared to EMAC. We postulated that CMAM must simulate a stronger lower branch of the Brewer-Dobson Circulation, the meridional stratospheric overturning circulation, since the stratospheric influence is isolated using these simulations. This has implications for the simulated magnitude and distribution of the downward flux of ozone from the stratosphere in each model. Shown in Figure 2 is the zonal-mean monthly evolution of ozone volume mixing ratio (ppbv) from ozonesondes and EMAC over the period 1980-2013 for the upper (350 hPa), middle (500 hPa) and lower (850 hPa) troposphere, together with the EMAC O3S and derived fraction of ozone of stratospheric origin (O3F) (%) evolution.

We found that the ozonesonde evolution closely resembles that of both EMAC and CMAM (not shown) throughout the troposphere. A clear correspondence in the seasonality of ozone is also evident for the EMAC O3S tracer, and in turn the O3F evolution, particularly towards the upper troposphere. Nonetheless, both models imply that over 50 % of near-surface ozone is derived from the stratosphere during wintertime in the extratropics, which is substantially greater than that estimated by Lamarque et al. (1999) (~ 10-20 %), and still considerably higher than more recent studies (~ 30-50 %) (e.g. Banarjee et al., 2016). This indicates that the stratospheric influence may indeed be larger than previously thought and is thus an important consideration when attempting to understand past, present and future trends in tropospheric ozone.

Figure 2 – Zonal-mean monthly mean evolution of ozone (O3) volume mixing ratio (ppbv) derived from (a) ozonesondes and (b) EMAC. The evolution of the (c) EMAC stratospheric ozone (O3S) tracer and (d) stratospheric fraction (O3F) (%) are additionally included over the period 1980-2010 for 350 hPa (top row), 500 hPa (middle row) and 850 hPa (bottom row).

Finally, we analysed height-resolved seasonal changes in both the model O3 and O3S between 1980-89 and 2001-10. The calculated hemispheric springtime (MAM/SON) changes in ozone are shown in Figure 3, and equivalently for O3S in Figure 4, for the upper and middle troposphere (350 and 500 hPa), as well as for the surface model level. A general increase in tropospheric ozone was found worldwide in all seasons, which is maximised overall during spring in both the Northern Hemisphere (~ 4-6 ppbv) and the Southern Hemisphere subtropics (~ 2-6 ppbv), corresponding to a relative increase of about 5-10 %. Respectively, a significant stratospheric contribution to this change of ~ 3-5 ppbv and ~ 1-4 ppbv is estimated using the model O3S tracers (~ 50-80 % of the total change), although with substantial inter-model disagreement over the magnitude and sometimes the sign of the attributable change for any given region or season from the stratosphere.

Figure 3 – Seasonal change in EMAC ozone volume mixing ratio (O3) (ppbv) between 1980-89 and 2001-10 for MAM (top) and SON (bottom) at (a) 350 hPa, (b) 500 hPa and (c) the surface model level. Stippling denotes regions of statistical significance according to a paired two-sided t-test (p < 0.05).

Although surface ozone changes are dominated by regional changes in precursor emissions between the two periods – the largest, statistically significant increases (> 6 ppbv) being over south-east Asia – the changing influence from the stratosphere were estimated to be up to 1–2 ppbv between the two periods in the Northern Hemisphere, albeit with high regional, seasonal and inter-model variability. In relative terms, the stratosphere can be seen to typically explain 25-30 % of the surface change over regions such as the Himalayas, although locally it may represent the dominant driver (> 50 %) where changes in emission precursors are negligible or even declining due to the enforcement of more stringent air quality regulations over regions such as western Europe and eastern North America in recent years.

Figure 4 – Seasonal change in EMAC stratospheric ozone volume mixing ratio (O3S) (ppbv) between 1980-89 and 2001-10 for MAM (top) and SON (bottom) at (a) 350 hPa, (b) 500 hPa and (c) the surface model level. Stippling denotes regions of statistical significance according to a paired two-sided t-test (p < 0.05). Note the scale difference between (a-b) and (c).

To summarise, our paper highlights some of the shortcomings of the EMAC and CMAM CCMs with respect to observations and we emphasise the importance of understanding model bias origins when performing subsequent model-based evaluations. Additionally, our evaluations highlight the necessity of a well-resolved stratosphere in models for quantifying the stratospheric influence on tropospheric ozone. We find evidence that the stratospheric influence may be larger than previously thought, compared with previous model-based studies, which is a highly significant finding for understanding tropospheric ozone trends.

Lamarque, J. F., Hess, P. G. and Tie, X. X.: Three‐dimensional model study of the influence of stratosphere‐troposphere exchange and its distribution on tropospheric chemistry., J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 104(D21), 26363-26372, https://doi:10.1029/1999JD900762, 1999.

Banerjee, A., Maycock, A. C., Archibald, A. T., Abraham, N. L., Telford, P., Braesicke, P., and Pyle, J. A.: Drivers of changes in stratospheric and tropospheric ozone between year 2000 and 2100., Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 2727-2746,, 2016.

SPARC (Stratosphere-troposphere Processes And their Role in Climate) General Assembly 2018

I was very fortunate to recently attend the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 conference in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October) – the former imperial capital – where I had the opportunity to give a poster presentation of my research and network with fellow scientists of all ages and nationalities. SPARC is one of five core projects as part of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), with a focus for coordinated, cutting-edge research on the interactions of both chemical and physical processes on Earth’s climate, at an international level. The main themes of the conference included: chemistry-climate interactions; subseasonal to decadal climate prediction; atmospheric dynamics and their role in climate; the importance of tropical processes; advances in observation and reanalysis datasets; and importantly, societal engagement of climate-related atmospheric research.

Attendees of the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October 2018)

Despite the best efforts of Typhoon Trami to disrupt the proceedings, the conference went ahead largely as planned with only minor revisions to the schedule. An icebreaker on the Sunday afternoon provided an opportunity to meet a few others who had braved the deteriorating weather over snacks and refreshments. The conference opening ceremony finally got underway at lunchtime the next day with a traditional Japanese Taiko performance (a musical display involving drums and percussion instruments), followed by a talk from Neil Harris (the co-chair of SPARC). He discussed some of the challenges the General Assembly aimed to address over the week, including the provision of information for governments and society to act on climate change and how we as scientists can help to assist governments and society to take action. He emphasised the need for a holistic approach to both atmospheric dynamics and predictability.

Each day contained up to three oral presentation sessions, usually commencing with keynote talks from some of the leading scientists in the field, followed by poster sessions similarly organised by theme. The conference was noteworthy in its absence of parallel sessions and a strong focus on poster sessions, with over 400 posters presented during the course of the entire week! For the early career researchers (ECRs) amongst us, there were prizes for the best received posters in the form of a generous sum of money courtesy of Google’s Project Loon – a mission to increase internet connectivity in remote regions and developing countries by using a network of balloons in the stratosphere. The awards were presented during each of two ECR poster award ceremonies during the week, with the winners determined by a panel of assigned judges during each poster session. A dedicated entertainment and networking session was also organised for us ECRs on the Monday evening. Hosted by several senior scientists, who shared their expertise, the event proved extremely popular.

The Wednesday offered a short window of opportunity for sightseeing around Kyoto in the afternoon before the scheduled conference dinner (followed by dancing) was held in the evening at a local hotel venue. A wide range of Japanese, Chinese and Western buffet food was served, in addition to a variety of Japanese beers, wines and whiskeys. The event was ideal in facilitating networking between different research themes and offered me the chance to hear people’s experiences ranging from their current PhD studies to managing collaborations as leaders of large international working groups.

The conference drew to a close late Friday afternoon and culminated in a roundtable discussion of the future of SPARC initiated by members of the audience. The session helped to clarify aims and working objectives for the future, not only over the next few years but also in decades to come. As a PhD student with hopefully a long career ahead of me, this proved highly stimulating and the thought of actively contributing to achieve these targets in the years to come is a very exciting prospect! I am very grateful for the opportunity to have attended this excellent international meeting and visit Japan, all of which would not have been possible without funding support from my industrial CASE partner, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).