Formic acid (HCOOH) is one of the most abundant carboxylic acids and a dominant source of atmospheric acidity. Recent work indicates a major gap in the HCOOH budget, with atmospheric concentrations much larger than expected from known sources. Here, we employ recent space-based observations from the Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer with the GEOS-Chem atmospheric model to better quantify the HCOOH source from biomass burning, and assess whether fire emissions can help close the large budget gap for this species. The space-based data reveal a severe model HCOOH underestimate most prominent over tropical burning regions, suggesting a major missing source of organic acids from fires. We develop an approach for inferring the fractional fire contribution to ambient HCOOH and find, based on measurements over Africa, that pyrogenic HCOOH:CO enhancement ratios are much higher than expected from direct emissions alone, revealing substantial secondary organic acid production in fire plumes. Current models strongly underestimate (by 10 ± 5 times) the total primary and secondary HCOOH source from African fires. If a 10-fold bias were to extend to fires in other regions, biomass burning could produce 14 Tg/a of HCOOH in the tropics or 16 Tg/a worldwide. However, even such an increase would only represent 15-20% of the total required HCOOH source, implying the existence of other larger missing sources.
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© 2016 American Chemical Society.