Probing stratospheric transport and chemistry with new balloon and aircraft observations of the meridional and vertical N2O isotope distribution

J. Kaiser, A. Engel, R. Borchers, T. Röckmann

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A comprehensive set of stratospheric balloon and aircraft samples was analyzed for the position-dependent isotopic composition of nitrous oxide (N2O). Results for a total of 220 samples from between 1987 and 2003 are presented, nearly tripling the number of mass-spectrometric N2O isotope measurements in the stratosphere published to date. Cryogenic balloon samples were obtained at polar (Kiruna/Sweden, 68° N), mid-latitude (southern France, 44° N) and tropical sites (Hyderabad/India, 18° N). Aircraft samples were collected with a newly-developed whole air sampler on board of the high-altitude aircraft M55 Geophysica during the EUPLEX 2003 campaign. For mixing ratios above 200 nmol mol−1, relative isotope enrichments (δ values) and mixing ratios display a compact relationship, which is nearly independent of latitude and season and which can be explained equally well by Rayleigh fractionation or mixing. However, for mixing ratios below 200 nmol mol−1 this compact relationship gives way to meridional, seasonal and interannual variations. A comparison to a previously published mid-latitude balloon profile even shows large zonal variations, justifying the use of three-dimensional (3-D) models for further data interpretation.

In general, the magnitude of the apparent fractionation constants (i.e., apparent isotope effects) increases continuously with altitude and decreases from the equator to the North Pole. Only the latter observation can be understood qualitatively by the interplay between the time-scales of N2O photochemistry and transport in a Rayleigh fractionation framework. Deviations from Rayleigh fractionation behavior also occur where polar vortex air mixes with nearly N2O-free upper stratospheric/mesospheric air (e.g., during the boreal winters of 2003 and possibly 1992). Aircraft observations in the polar vortex at mixing ratios below 200 nmol mol−1 deviate from isotope variations expected for both Rayleigh fractionation and two-end-member mixing, but could be explained by continuous weak mixing between intravortex and extravortex air (Plumb et al., 2000). However, it appears that none of the simple approaches described here can capture all features of the stratospheric N2O isotope distribution, again justifying the use of 3-D models. Finally, correlations between 18O/16O and average 15N/14N isotope ratios or between the position-dependent 15N/14N isotope ratios show that photo-oxidation makes a large contribution to the total N2O sink in the lower stratosphere (possibly up to 100% for N2O mixing ratios above 300 nmol mol−1). Towards higher altitudes, the temperature dependence of these isotope correlations becomes visible in the stratospheric observations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3535-3556
Number of pages22
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2006

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