Size distributions of elemental carbon in the atmosphere of a coastal urban area in South China: characteristics, evolution processes, and implications for the mixing state
1Department of Chemistry, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China
2Shenzhen Graduate School, Peking University, Shenzhen, 518055, China
3Atmospheric Research Center, HKUST Fok Ying Tung Graduate School, Nansha, Guangzhou 511458, China
Abstract. Elemental carbon (EC), as one of the primary light-absorbing components in the atmosphere, has a significant impact on both regional and global climate. The environmental impacts of EC are strongly dependent on its particle size. Little is known about the size distribution characteristics of EC particles in China's ambient environments. We report size distributions of EC particles in the urban area of Shenzhen in Southern China. In our samples, EC was consistently found in two modes, a fine mode and a coarse mode. The majority of EC mass (~80%) in this coastal metropolitan city resided in particles smaller than 3.2 μm in diameter. The fine mode peaked at around either 0.42 μm or 0.75 μm. While the mode at 0.42 μm could be ascribed to fresh vehicular emissions in the region, the mode at 0.75 μm was likely a result of particle growth from smaller EC particles. We theoretically investigated the particle growth processes that caused the EC particles to grow from 0.42 μm to 0.75 µm in the atmosphere. Our calculations indicate that the EC peak at 0.75 μm was not produced through either coagulation or H2SO4 condensation; both processes are too slow to lead to significant EC growth. Hygroscopic growth was also determined to be insignificant. Instead, addition of sulfate through in-cloud processing was found to cause significant growth of the EC particles and to explain the EC peak at 0.75 μm. We also estimated the mixing state of EC from the EC size distributions. In the droplet size, at least 45–60% of the EC mass in the summer samples and 68% of the EC mass in the winter samples was internally mixed with sulfate as a result of in-cloud processing. This information on EC should be considered in models of the optical properties of aerosols in this region. Our results also suggest that the in-cloud processing of primary EC particles could increase the light absorbing capacities through mixing EC with sulfate.