Daytime HONO vertical gradients during SHARP 2009 in Houston, TX
Nitrous Acid (HONO) plays an important role in tropospheric chemistry as a precursor of the hydroxyl radical (OH), the most important oxidizing agent in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the formation mechanisms of HONO are still not completely understood. Recent field observations found unexpectedly high daytime HONO concentrations in both urban and rural areas, which point to unrecognized, most likely photolytically enhanced HONO sources. Several gas-phase, aerosol, and ground surface chemistry mechanisms have been proposed to explain elevated daytime HONO, but atmospheric evidence to favor one over the others is still weak. New information on whether HONO formation occurs in the gas-phase, on aerosol, or at the ground may be derived from observations of the vertical distribution of HONO and its precursor nitrogen dioxide, NO2, as well as from its dependence on solar irradiance or actinic flux. Here we present field observations of HONO, NO2 and other trace gases in three altitude intervals (30-70 m, 70-130m and 130-300 m) using UCLA's long path DOAS instrument, as well as in situ measurements of OH, NO, photolysis frequencies and solar irradiance, made in Houston, TX, during the Study of Houston Atmospheric Radical Precursor (SHARP) experiment from 20 April to 30 May 2009. The observed HONO mixing ratios were often ten times larger than the expected photostationary state with OH and NO. Larger HONO mixing ratios observed near the ground than aloft imply, but do not clearly prove, that the daytime source of HONO was located at or near the ground. Using a pseudo steady-state (PSS) approach, we calculated the missing day-time HONO formation rates, P-unknown, on four sunny days. The NO2-normalized P-unknown, P-norm, showed a clear symmetrical diurnal variation with a maximum around noontime, which was well correlated with actinic flux (NO2 photolysis frequency) and solar irradiance. This behavior, which was found on all clear days in Houston, is a strong indication of a photolytic HONO source. [HONO]/[NO2] ratios also showed a clear diurnal profile, with maxima of 2-3% around noon. PSS calculations show that this behavior cannot be explained by the proposed gas-phase reaction of photo-excited NO2 (NO2*) or any other gas-phase or aerosol photolytic process occurring at similar or longer wavelengths than that of HONO photolysis. HONO formation by aerosol nitrate photolysis in the UV also seems to be unlikely. P-norm correlated better with solar irradiance (average R-2 = 0.85/0.87 for visible/UV) than with actinic flux (R-2 = 0.76) on the four sunny days, clearly pointing to HONO being formed at the ground rather than on the aerosol or in the gas-phase. In addition, the observed [HONO]/[NO2] diurnal variation can be explained if the formation of HONO depends on solar irradiance, but not if it depends on the actinic flux. The vertical mixing ratio profiles, together with the stronger correlation with solar irradiance, support the idea that photolytically enhanced NO2 to HONO conversion on the ground was the dominant source of HONO in Houston.