Nitrogen oxide radicals (NOx) produced by lightning are natural precursors for the production of the dominant tropospheric oxidants, OH and ozone. Observations of the interannual variability (IAV) of tropical ozone and of global mean OH (from the methyl chloroform proxy) offer a window for understanding the sensitivity of ozone and OH to environmental factors. We present the results of simulations for 1998–2006 using the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model (CTM) with IAV in tropical lightning constrained by satellite observations from the Lightning Imaging Sensor. We find that this imposed IAV in lightning NOx improves the ability of the model to reproduce observed IAV in tropical ozone and OH. Lightning is far more important than biomass burning in driving the IAV of tropical ozone, even though the IAV of NOx emissions from fires is greater than that from lightning. Our results indicate that the IAV in tropospheric OH is highly sensitive to lightning relative to other emissions and suggest that lightning contributes an important fraction of the observed IAV in OH inferred from the methyl chloroform proxy. Lightning affects OH through the HO2+ NO reaction, an effect compounded by positive feedback from the resulting increase in ozone production and in CO loss. We can account in the model for the observed increase in OH in 1998–2004 and for its IAV, but the model fails to explain the OH decrease in 2004–2006. We find that stratospheric ozone plays little role in driving IAV in OH during 1998–2006, in contrast to previous studies that examined earlier periods.
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