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Reading and writing netCDF-format files

Matlab provides both low- and high-level scripts for reading and writing netCDF
files. One of the high-level scripts is "ncinfo" which will read the header of t
he file, and give you the variable names, dimensions, and attributes for the fil
e. Alternatively you can download the command line utility "ncdump" in the NetCD
F library available here. The utility "ncdump" will print the header, a single v
ariable, or the entire file. If you are new to reading netCDF or other self-desc
ribing format files, the ability to find out the variable names, dimensions, and
attributes in a file before you try a script or utility is invaluable.
The Matlab provided high-level scripts are "nccreate", "ncdisp", "ncinfo", "ncre
ad", "ncreadatt", "ncwrite", "ncwriteatt", and "ncwriteschema". Type "help comma
nd_name" to get information on how to use the script. I have found the Matlab WW
W documentation to be very good.
Example: The following MATLAB commands were used to write a netCDF file for a 4dimensional variable with MATLAB version 2012b. These lines should give you a go
od idea of what MATLAB wants.
I start with an existing netCDF-format file, and copy the header information to
a new file. In the absence of a netCDF file to copy the header from, writing the
header information (variable and attribute names and dimensions) is accomplishe
d with nccreate and ncwriteatt I believe. is the input filename is the output filename
finfo = ncinfo( );
ncwriteschema(, finfo);
"ncwriteshema" writes the header information, but no data to
My four-dimensional variable is fdat where fdat = fdat(time,level,lat,lon) from
ncdump of
The following lines write the longitude, latitude, vertical dimension,
and time
ncwrite(, 'lon', longitudes_variable )
ncwrite(, 'lat', latitudes_variable )
ncwrite(, 'level', vertical_variable )
ncwrite(, 'time', time_variable )
A source of error here is that the variable type: double, integer,
short, ... has to match what the file header expects.




longitude points
latitude points
vertical points
time points

fdat = ncread(, variablename, [ 1 1 1 icnt ], [ nx ny nz 1 ] );

reads a data volume for the icnt'th time
Note that inside the MATLAB session, fdat is dimensioned fdat(lon,lat,level,time
ncwrite(, variablename, fdat );
writes all of fdat
ncwrite(, variablename, fdat, [ 1 1 1 icnt ] );
where fdat is dimensioned fdat(lon,lat,level) inside the Matlab session

ncwrite(, variablename, fdat(icnt,:,:,:), [ 1 1 1 icnt ] );

also works, where fdat is dimensioned fdat(time,lon,lat,level).
Example 2: Writing a 4-dimensional variable into a file from which there is no
other file to copy header information from.
A script that does much of the following. Save yourself some typing !
nccreate( '', 'w', 'Dimensions', { 'x', 211, 'y', 121, 'level', ...
50, 'time', inf } );
If the variable has missing values, you define the FillValue in nccreate: " 'Fil
lValue', value ". Do not use NAN as the FillValue. The Matlab documentation uses
NaN, but netCDF operators (NCOs) may or may not interpret the NAN correctly. In
stead use a number for the missing value that won't be found in your data.
'', 'w', w );
ncwriteatt( '', 'w', 'long_name', 'vertical velocity' );
ncwriteatt( '', 'w', 'units', 'Pa/s' );
nccreate( '', 'lon',
'DataType', 'single' );
'', 'lon',
ncwriteatt( '', 'lon',
ncwriteatt( '', 'lon',

'Dimensions', { 'x', 211, 'y', 121 }, ...

nccreate( '', 'lat',

'DataType', 'single' );
'', 'lat',
ncwriteatt( '', 'lat',
ncwriteatt( '', 'lat',

'Dimensions', { 'x', 211, 'y', 121 }, ...

xgrid2 );
'long_name', 'longitude' );
'units', 'degrees_east' );

ygrid2 );
'long_name', 'latitude' );
'units', 'degrees'_north );

nccreate( '', 'time', 'Dimensions', { 'time', inf } );

'', 'time', time_value );
ncwriteatt( '', 'time', 'long_name', 'time' );
ncwriteatt( '', 'time', 'units', ...
'seconds since 1970-01-01 00:00:00.0 0:00' );
The netCDF files written written to the COARDS standard include a time variable
(year, month, day, hour, ...), which is nice to have and time consuming to set u
p. The rest of this page describes libraries that enable time and the other vari
ables to be read more easily.
Your MATLAB code will need both the MexCDF and MexEPS libraries to run these scr
ipts. I apologize for this inconvenience, but I am a scientist and not a program
mer, so I am forced to use everyone elses libraries. Use the following code at y
our own risk.
The scripts comply with the netCDF standard of the Cooperative Ocean-Atmosphere
Research Data Service (COARDS). The metadata information (header) for a simple f
ile written to COARDS specifications is here.
The COARDS standard is for time to be written as "so many units of time since so
me reference time." Writing and reading time in this way complies with the uduni
ts standard, and keeping track of leap years and historical changes in calendars

requires the MexEPS libraries, which are expertly managed by Willa Zhu of NOAA
PMEL. The "nc_read.m" script described below will also read files where time is
written as "yyyymmddhhmmss" (year, month, day, ...), which is an older in-house
convention. The "nc_write.m" script writes the time variable in the COARDS fashi
Reading a map:
[ data, i4, r4, nam, xgrid, ygrid ] = nc_read( filename, record);
"data" is a vector of the data,
"i4, r4" are vectors containing metadata: number of latitude and longitude point
s, first latitude point, etc.,
"nam" (optional) variable name
"xgrid, ygrid" (optional) vectors of longitude and latitude points, respectively
"filename" name of file to be read in
"record" number of the record to be read in
The header of the MATLAB script explains these variables in more detail.
nc_read.m -- the MATLAB script.
Writing a map:
nc_write( filename, record, data, nam, i4, r4 );
"filename" is the output filename,
"record" is the record number to write,
"data" is a vector containing the data,
"nam" a variable name or units information,
"i4, r4" are vectors containing metadata: number of latitude and longitude point
s, first latitude point, etc.,
The header of the MATLAB script explains these variables in more detail.
nc_write.m -- the MATLAB script.
Converting 3-dimensional arrays to 2-dimensions
Matlab now handles arrays with greater than 2 dimensions, which is useful for ca
lculating means along latitude or longitude circles or spatial differences. The
great majority of calculations, however, treat each grid point as an independent
timeseries, and it is simpler to manipulate the data as a two-dimensional matri
x, A(t,x). The following 2 lines will reduce an input 3-dimensional array to 2-d
Consider A = A(nt,ny,nx) where nt, ny, nx are the number of time, latitude, and
longitude points, respectively.
A = permute( A, [ 3 2 1 ] );
A = squeeze( reshape( A, nx*ny,nt,1 ) )' ;
"A" will be dimensioned A(nt,nx*ny), and the second index will first span the fi
rst latitude circle and then the second latitude circle, and so forth.
threetotwo.m -- the MATLAB script.
Filling partial years of data in arrays and time series

For some reason, datasets and time series are still written for partial years of
data. In a world of gigabytes and terabytes, people are still worried about byt
es and kilobytes. The following script will append missing values ("NaN"s) to ti
me series or data arrays to make a complete year of data. The script can handle
monthly or other time resolution data (but not Leap Days for now --- it would be
easy to do).
fill_year.m -- the MATLAB script.
Saving data in ascii format
It is sometimes useful to save data in ascii format, and this is especially true
for climate indices where you might want to look at values for selected periods
without having to ingest data into software.
As of version R2012b, and possibly a little before, this is accomplished in Matl
ab with
save filename.ascii -ascii variable_name(s)
where "variable_name(s)" have to be in double precision. The error message for a
n incorrect variable type is cryptic.
Interpolating 3-dimensional data
Interpolating 3-dimensional data is straightforward, but having an example to fo
llow can save you a lot of time!
I read in a dataset whose ncdump has a variable to interpolate, A = A(time,level
,y,x), lon = lon(y,x), lat = lat(y,x), and level = level(z). The dataset I read
is not an equal angle dataset.
Read in a 3-dimensional volume for the icnt'th time of the 4-dimensional dataset
fdat = ncread( filename, A, [ 1 1 1 icnt ], [ nx ny nz 1 ] );
whos fdat
% nx * ny * nz
% griddata wants vector input
lon2 = reshape( lon, nx*ny, 1 );
lon2 = reshape( lon2*ones(1,nz), ny*nx*nz, 1 );
lat2 = reshape( lat, nx*ny, 1 );
lat2 = reshape( lat2*ones(1,nz), ny*nx*nz, 1 );
zgrid2 = reshape( ones(nx*ny,1)*level(1:nz)', ny*nx*nz, 1 );
fdat2 = reshape( fdat, nx*ny*nz, 1, 1 );
% Define the output grid. These variables are in 3 dimensions.
[ lon3, lat3, zgrid3 ] = meshgrid( [ -126+1/6/2:1/6:-113-1/6/2 ], ...
[ 43-1/6/2:-1/6:31+1/6/6 ], level(1:nz) );
% ny * nx * nz
fdat3 = griddata( lon2, lat2, zgrid2, fdat2, lon3, lat3, zgrid3 );
whos fdat3
% ny * nx * nz