Black carbon, light-absorbing organic carbon (often called "brown carbon") and mineral dust are the major light-absorbing aerosols. Currently the sources and formation of brown carbon aerosol in particular are not well understood. In this study we estimated the amount of light–absorbing organic carbon and black carbon from AERONET measurements. We find that the columnar absorbing organic carbon (brown carbon) levels in biomass burning regions of South America and Africa are relatively high (about 15–20 mg m−2 during biomass burning season), while the concentrations are significantly lower in urban areas in US and Europe. However, we estimated significant absorbing organic carbon amounts from the data of megacities of newly industrialized countries, particularly in India and China, showing also clear seasonality with peak values up to 30–35 mg m−2 during the coldest season, likely caused by the coal and biofuel burning used for heating. We also compared our retrievals with the modeled organic carbon by the global Oslo CTM for several sites. Model values are higher in biomass burning regions than AERONET-based retrievals, while the opposite is true in urban areas in India and China.