Articles | Volume 9, issue 4
Research article
29 Apr 2016
Research article |  | 29 Apr 2016

A sensitivity study on the retrieval of aerosol vertical profiles using the oxygen A-band

Santo Fedele Colosimo, Vijay Natraj, Stanley P. Sander, and Jochen Stutz

Abstract. Atmospheric absorption in the O2 A-band (12 950–13 200 cm−1) offers a unique opportunity to retrieve aerosol extinction profiles from space-borne measurements due to the large dynamic range of optical thickness in that spectral region. Absorptions in strong O2 lines are saturated; therefore, any radiance measured in these lines originates from scattering in the upper part of the atmosphere. Outside of O2 lines, or in weak lines, the atmospheric column absorption is small, and light penetrates to lower atmospheric layers, allowing for the quantification of aerosols and other scatterers near the surface.

While the principle of aerosol profile retrieval using O2 A-band absorption from space is well-known, a thorough quantification of the information content, i.e., the amount of vertical profile information that can be obtained, and the dependence of the information content on the spectral resolution of the measurements, has not been thoroughly conducted. Here, we use the linearized vector radiative transfer model VLIDORT to perform spectrally resolved simulations of atmospheric radiation in the O2 A-band for four different aerosol extinction profile scenarios: urban (urban–rural areas), highly polluted (megacity areas with large aerosol extinction), elevated layer (identifying elevated plumes, for example for biomass burning) and low extinction (representative of small aerosol extinction, such as vegetated, marine and arctic areas).

The high-resolution radiances emerging from the top of the atmosphere measurements are degraded to different spectral resolutions, simulating spectrometers with different resolving powers. We use optimal estimation theory to quantify the information content in the aerosol profile retrieval with respect to different aerosol parameters and instrument spectral resolutions.

The simulations show that better spectral resolution generally leads to an increase in the total amount of information that can be retrieved, with the number of degrees of freedom (DoF) varying between 0.34–2.01 at low resolution (5 cm−1) to 3.43–5.38 at high resolution (0.05 cm−1) among all the different cases. A particularly strong improvement was found in the retrieval of tropospheric aerosol extinction profiles in the lowest 5 km of the atmosphere. At high spectral resolutions (0.05 cm−1), 1.18–1.48 and 1.31–1.96 DoF can be obtained in the lower (0–2 km) and middle (2–5 km) troposphere, respectively, for the different cases. Consequently, a separation of lower and mid tropospheric aerosols is possible, implying the feasibility of identification of elevated biomass burning aerosol plumes (elevated layer scenario). We find that a higher single scattering albedo (SSA) allows for the retrieval of more aerosol information. However, the dependence on SSA is weaker at higher spectral resolutions.

The vegetation (surface albedo 0.3), marine (surface albedo 0.05) and arctic (surface albedo 0.9) cases show that the dependence of DoF on the surface albedo decreases with higher resolution. At low resolution (5 cm−1), the DoF are 1.19 for the marine case, 0.73 for the vegetation case and 0.34 for the arctic case, but increase considerably at 0.05 cm−1 resolution to 3.84 (marine) and 3.43 (both vegetation and arctic), showing an improvement of a factor of 10 for the arctic case. Vegetation and arctic case also show the same DoF at higher resolution, showing that an increase of albedo beyond a certain value, i.e., 0.3 in our case, does not lead to a larger information content.

The simulations also reveal a moderate dependence of information content on the integration time of the measurements, i.e., the noise of the spectra. However, our results indicate that a larger increase in DoF is obtained by an increase in spectral resolution despite lower signal-to-noise ratios.

Short summary
Vertical aerosol extinction profile retrievals based on space-borne oxygen A-band observations benefit from high spectral resolution measurements. Radiative transfer calculations show that under most atmospheric conditions the information content of the retrievals increases with spectral resolution, despite a decreasing signal-to-noise ratio. The retrieval of lower tropospheric aerosol extinction over high albedo surfaces and of lofted biomass burning plumes becomes thus possible.