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Components of a NetCDF File

A netCDF file has dimensions, variables, and attributes. These components can be used together to capture the meaning of data and relations among data fields in a scientific data set.

We will use a small netCDF example to illustrate the concepts of netCDF dimensions, variables, and attributes. The notation used to describe this simple netCDF object is called CDL (network Common Data form Language). It provides an easily comprehended text version of the structure and contents of a binary netCDF file:

netcdf example_1 {  // example of CDL notation for a netCDF file

dimensions:          // dimension names and sizes are declared first
        lat = 5, lon = 10, level = 4, time = unlimited;

variables:           // variable types, names, shapes, attributes
        float   temp(time,level,lat,lon);
                    temp:long_name     = "temperature";
                    temp:units         = "celsius";
        float   rh(time,lat,lon);
                    rh:long_name = "relative humidity";
                    rh:valid_range = 0.0, 1.0;      // min and max
        int     lat(lat), lon(lon), level(level);
                    lat:units       = "degrees_north";      
                    lon:units       = "degrees_east";
                    level:units     = "millibars";
        short   time(time);
                    time:units      = "hours since 1990-11-25 12:00 UTC";
        // global attributes
                    :source = "National Weather Service";

data:                // optional data assignments
        level   = 1000, 850, 700, 500;
        lat     = 20, 30, 40, 50, 60;
        lon     = -160,-140,-118,-96,-84,-52,-45,-35,-25,-15;
        time    = 12;
        rh      =.5,.2,.4,.2,.3,.2,.4,.5,.6,.7,

The CDL notation for a netCDF file can be generated automatically by using ncdump, a utility program described later (see section ncdump). Another netCDF utility, ncgen, generates a netCDF file (or optionally C or FORTRAN source code containing calls needed to produce a netCDF file) from CDL input (see section ncgen). It is not necessary to learn much about CDL notation to use the netCDF library; we use it in this document as a concise way of presenting netCDF examples.

The CDL notation will be explained more fully as we describe the components of a netCDF file. For now, note that CDL statements are terminated by a semicolon. Spaces, tabs, and newlines can be used freely for readability. Comments in CDL follow the characters `//' on any line. A CDL description of a netCDF file takes the form

  netCDF name {
    dimensions: ...
    variables: ...
    data: ...
where the name is used only as a default in constructing the name of the file generated by the ncgen utility. The CDL description consists of three optional parts, introduced by the keywords dimensions, variables, and data. NetCDF dimension declarations appear after the dimensions keyword, netCDF variables and attributes are defined after the variables keyword, and variable data assignments appear after the data keyword.

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