A fundamental limitation of grid-based models is their inability to resolve variability on scales smaller than a grid box. Past research has shown that significant aerosol variability exists on scales smaller than these grid-boxes, which can lead to discrepancies in simulated aerosol climate effects between high and low resolution models. This study investigates the impact of neglecting sub-grid variability in present-day global microphysical aerosol models on aerosol optical depth (AOD) and cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). We introduce a novel technique to isolate the effect of aerosol variability from other sources of model variability by varying the resolution of aerosol and trace gas fields while maintaining a constant resolution in the rest of the model.
We compare WRF-Chem runs in which aerosol and gases are simulated at 80 km and again at 10 km resolutions; in both simulations the other model components, such as meteorology and dynamics, are kept at the 10 km baseline resolution. We find that AOD is underestimated by 13 % and CCN is overestimated by 27 % when aerosol and gases are simulated at 80 km resolution compared to 10 km. Processes most affected by neglecting aerosol sub-grid variability are gas-phase chemistry and aerosol uptake of water through aerosol/gas equilibrium reactions. The inherent non-linearities in these processes result in large changes in aerosol parameters when aerosol and gaseous species are artificially mixed over large spatial scales. These changes in aerosol and gas concentrations are exaggerated by convective transport, which transports these altered concentrations to altitudes where their effect is more pronounced. These results demonstrate that aerosol variability can have a large impact on simulating aerosol climate effects, even when meteorology and dynamics are held constant. Future aerosol model development should focus on accounting for the effect of sub-grid variability on these processes at global scales in order to improve model predictions of the aerosol effect on climate.