Articles | Volume 10, issue 7
Research article
26 Jul 2017
Research article |  | 26 Jul 2017

Retrieval of volcanic SO2 from HIRS/2 using optimal estimation

Georgina M. Miles, Richard Siddans, Roy G. Grainger, Alfred J. Prata, Bradford Fisher, and Nickolay Krotkov

Abstract. We present an optimal-estimation (OE) retrieval scheme for stratospheric sulfur dioxide from the High-Resolution Infrared Radiation Sounder 2 (HIRS/2) instruments on the NOAA and MetOp platforms, an infrared radiometer that has been operational since 1979. This algorithm is an improvement upon a previous method based on channel brightness temperature differences, which demonstrated the potential for monitoring volcanic SO2 using HIRS/2. The Prata method is fast but of limited accuracy. This algorithm uses an optimal-estimation retrieval approach yielding increased accuracy for only moderate computational cost. This is principally achieved by fitting the column water vapour and accounting for its interference in the retrieval of SO2. A cloud and aerosol model is used to evaluate the sensitivity of the scheme to the presence of ash and water/ice cloud. This identifies that cloud or ash above 6 km limits the accuracy of the water vapour fit, increasing the error in the SO2 estimate. Cloud top height is also retrieved. The scheme is applied to a case study event, the 1991 eruption of Cerro Hudson in Chile. The total erupted mass of SO2 is estimated to be 2300 kT ± 600 kT. This confirms it as one of the largest events since the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo, and of comparable scale to the Northern Hemisphere eruption of Kasatochi in 2008. This retrieval method yields a minimum mass per unit area detection limit of 3 DU, which is slightly less than that for the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS), the only other instrument capable of monitoring SO2 from 1979 to 1996. We show an initial comparison to TOMS for part of this eruption, with broadly consistent results. Operating in the infrared (IR), HIRS has the advantage of being able to measure both during the day and at night, and there have frequently been multiple HIRS instruments operated simultaneously for better than daily sampling. If applied to all data from the series of past and future HIRS instruments, this method presents the opportunity to produce a comprehensive and consistent volcanic SO2 time series spanning over 40 years.

Short summary
Volcanic eruptions are important in the way they perturb the climate and help us understand atmospheric processes. We show a new method to measure the SO2 released by explosive volcanic eruptions using the HIRS/2 satellite instrument, which measured atmospheric temperature and H2O. We apply the technique to the 1991 eruption of Cerro Hudson and show it is possible to detect SO2 with a good degree of accuracy. This method and instrument can potentially generate a climate-significant record.