The International Arctic Ocean Expedition of 1991 measured number concentrations of condensation nuclei and cloud condensation nuclei from 1 August to 6 October between latitudes 70°N and 90°N. Changes in concentration of more than a factor of 2 in 1 h or less were frequent in spite of the long distances from significant sources and often appeared in groups separated by times of the order of 1 h. These observations provide a unique opportunity to study interacting meteorological mechanisms in the stable marine boundary layer. It is suggested that most of these changes were due to two factors: (1) large vertical concentration gradients caused mainly by interaction of aerosol and clouds and (2) intermittent localised mixing into the shallow surface mixed layer, caused by atmospheric wave motions or roll vortices. Quasi-periodic changes of smaller amplitude were present for about 35% of the total time with mean periods in the range 60–90 min. About 1/6 of the sudden large changes, usually involving an isolated decrease and recovery in accumulation mode particle number concentrations, is attributed to mixing caused by shear-induced Kelvin-Helmholtz breaking waves. Regular sequences of maxima and minima were about as common but involved 2/3 of all such changes because of the number of events in each sequence. Satellite images, radiosonde wind profiles and the typical mean periods suggested that roll vortices were common in the high Arctic. The associated mixing changes seemed to account adequately for the alternating maxima and minima in aerosol number concentrations. The special conditions of atmospheric stability and high frequencies of low cloud cover in the high Arctic combined with the absence of strong local sources of particles have allowed us to identify processes of mixing that often drastically modified aerosol size distributions and concentrations near the surface which are likely to have a far more general application. These factors have to be added to studies of chemical and physical processes influencing the life cycle of the aerosol and air transport, in order to understand the sources, sinks and to define the radiative forcing by the atmospheric aerosol in the Arctic and elsewhere.