Abstract. Chemical components of organic aerosol (OA) selectively absorb light at short wavelengths. In this study, the prevalence, sources, and optical importance of this so-called brown carbon (BrC) aerosol component are investigated throughout the North American continental tropospheric column during a summer of extensive biomass burning. Spectrophotometric absorption measurements on extracts of bulk aerosol samples collected from an aircraft over the central USA were analyzed to directly quantify BrC abundance. BrC was found to be prevalent throughout the 1 to 12 km altitude measurement range, with dramatic enhancements in biomass-burning plumes. BrC to black carbon (BC) ratios, under background tropospheric conditions, increased with altitude, consistent with a corresponding increase in the absorption Ångström exponent (AAE) determined from a three-wavelength particle soot absorption photometer (PSAP). The sum of inferred BC absorption and measured BrC absorption at 365 nm was within 3 % of the measured PSAP absorption for background conditions and 22 % for biomass burning. A radiative transfer model showed that BrC absorption reduced top-of-atmosphere (TOA) aerosol forcing by ~ 20 % in the background troposphere. Extensive radiative model simulations applying this study background tropospheric conditions provided a look-up chart for determining radiative forcing efficiencies of BrC as a function of a surface-measured BrC : BC ratio and single scattering albedo (SSA). The chart is a first attempt to provide a tool for better assessment of brown carbon's forcing effect when one is limited to only surface data. These results indicate that BrC is an important contributor to direct aerosol radiative forcing.