Airborne observations over the North Atlantic Ocean reveal the importance of gas-phase urea in the atmosphere

Emily Matthews, Thomas J. Bannan, M. Anwar H. Khan, Dudley E. Shallcross, Harald Stark, Eleanor C. Browne, Alexander T. Archibald, Archit Mehra, Stéphane J.B. Bauguitte, Chris Reed, Navaneeth M. Thamban, Huihui Wu, Patrick Barker, James Lee, Lucy J. Carpenter, Mingxi Yang, Thomas G. Bell, Grant Allen, John T. Jayne, Carl J. PercivalGordon McFiggans, Martin Gallagher, Hugh Coe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reduced nitrogen (N) is central to global biogeochemistry, yet there are large uncertainties surrounding its sources and rate of cycling. Here, we present observations of gas-phase urea (CO(NH2)2) in the atmosphere from airborne high-resolution mass spectrometer measurements over the North Atlantic Ocean. We show that urea is ubiquitous in the lower troposphere in the summer, autumn, and winter but was not detected in the spring. The observations suggest that the ocean is the primary emission source, but further studies are required to understand the responsible mechanisms. Urea is also observed aloft due to long-range transport of biomass-burning plumes. These observations alongside global model simulations point to urea being an important, and currently unaccounted for, component of reduced-N to the remote marine atmosphere. Airborne transfer of urea between nutrient-rich and -poor parts of the ocean can occur readily and could impact ecosystems and oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide, with potentially important climate implications.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2218127120
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number25
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 the Author(s).


  • atmosphere
  • mass spectrometry
  • nitrogen cycling
  • ocean

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