Optical Properties of Individual Tar Balls in the Free Troposphere

Document Type


Publication Date



Department of Physics; Atmospheric Sciences


Tar balls are brown carbonaceous particles that are highly viscous, spherical, amorphous, and light absorbing. They are believed to form in biomass burning smoke plumes during transport in the troposphere. Tar balls are also believed to have a significant impact on the Earth's radiative balance, but due to poorly characterized optical properties, this impact is highly uncertain. Here, we used two nighttime samples to investigate the chemical composition and optical properties of individual tar balls transported in the free troposphere to the Climate Observatory "Ottavio Vittori" on Mt. Cimone, Italy, using multimodal microspectroscopy. In our two samples, tar balls contributed 50 % of carbonaceous particles by number. Of those tar balls, 16 % were inhomogeneously mixed with other constituents. Using electron energy loss spectroscopy, we retrieved the complex refractive index (RI) for a wavelength range from 200 to 1200 nm for both inhomogeneously and homogeneously mixed tar balls. We found no significant difference in the average RI of inhomogeneously and homogeneously mixed tar balls (1.40 - 0.03i and 1.36 - 0.03i at 550 nm, respectively). Furthermore, we estimated the top of the atmosphere radiative forcing using the Santa Barbara DISORT Atmospheric Radiative Transfer model and found that a layer of only tar balls with an optical depth of 0.1 above vegetation would exert a positive radiative forcing ranging from 2.8 W m (on a clear sky day) to 9.5 W m (when clouds are below the aerosol layer). Understanding the optical properties of tar balls can help reduce uncertainties associated with the contribution of biomass-burning aerosol in current climate models.

Publication Title

Environmental science & technology