High-resolution Dispersion Modelling in the Convective Boundary Layer

Lewis Blunn – l.p.blunn@pgr.reading.ac.uk

In this blog I will first give an overview of the representation of pollution dispersion in regional air quality models (AQMs). I will then show that when pollution dispersion simulations in the convective boundary layer (CBL) are run at \mathcal{O}(100 m) horizontal grid length, interesting dynamics emerge that have significant implications for urban air quality. 

Modelling Pollution Dispersion 

AQMs are a critical tool in the management of urban air pollution. They can be used for short-term air quality (AQ) forecasts, and in making planning and policy decisions aimed at abating poor AQ. For accurate AQ prediction the representation of vertical dispersion in the urban boundary layer (BL) is key because it controls the transport of pollution away from the surface. 

Current regional scale Eulerian AQMs are typically run at \mathcal{O}(10 km) horizontal grid length (Baklanov et al., 2014). The UK Met Office’s regional AQM runs at 12 km horizontal grid length (Savage et al., 2013) and its forecasts are used by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to provide a daily AQ index across the UK (today’s DEFRA forecast). At such horizontal grid lengths turbulence in the BL is sub-grid.  

Regional AQMs and numerical weather prediction (NWP) models typically parametrise vertical dispersion of pollution in the BL using K-theory and sometimes with an additional non-local component so that 

F=-K_z \frac{\partial{c}}{\partial{z}} +N_l 

where F is the flux of pollution, c is the pollution concentration, K(z) is a turbulent diffusion coefficient and z is the height from the ground. N_l is the non-local term which represents vertical turbulent mixing under convective conditions due to buoyant thermals (Lock et al., 2000; Siebesma et al., 2007).  

K-theory (i.e. N_l=0) parametrisation of turbulent dispersion is consistent mathematically with Fickian diffusion of particles in a fluid. If K(z) is taken as constant and particles are released far from any boundaries (i.e. away from the ground and BL capping inversion), the mean square displacement of pollution particles increases proportional to the time since release. Interestingly, Albert Einstein showed that Brownian motion obeys Fickian diffusion. Therefore, pollution particles in K-theory dispersion parametrisations are analogous to memoryless particles undergoing a random walk. 

It is known however that at short timescales after emission pollution particles do have memory. In the CBL, far from undergoing a random trajectory, pollution particles released in the surface layer initially tend to follow the BL scale overturning eddies. They horizontally converge before being transported to near the top of the BL in updrafts. This results in large pollution concentrations in the upper BL and low concentrations near the surface at times on the order of one CBL eddy turnover period since release (Deardorff, 1972; Willis and Deardorff, 1981). This has important implications for ground level pollution concentration predicted by AQMs (as demonstrated later). 

Pollution dispersion can be thought of as having two different behaviours at short and long times after release. In the short time “ballistic” limit, particles travel at the velocity within the eddy they were released into, and the mean square displacement of pollution particles increases proportional to the time squared. At times greater than the order of one eddy turnover (i.e. the long time “diffusive” limit) dispersion is less efficient, since particles have lost memory of the initial conditions that they were released into and undergo random motion.  For further discussion of atmospheric diffusion and memory effects see this blog (link).

In regional AQMs, the non-local parametrisation component does not capture the ballistic dynamics and K-theory treats dispersion as being “diffusive”. This means that at CBL eddy turnover timescales it is possible that current AQMs have large errors in their predicted concentrations. However, with increases in computing power it is now possible to run NWP for research purposes at \mathcal{O}(100 m) horizontal grid length (e.g. Lean et al., 2019) and routinely at 300 m grid length (Boutle et. al., 2016). At such grid lengths the dominant CBL eddies transporting pollution (and therefore the “ballistic” diffusion) becomes resolved and does not require parametrisation. 

To investigate the differences in pollution dispersion and potential benefits that can be expected when AQMs move to \mathcal{O}(100 m) horizontal grid length, I have run NWP at horizontal grid lengths ranging from 1.5 km (where CBL dispersion is parametrised) to 55 m (where CBL dispersion is mostly resolved). The simulations are unique in that they are the first at such grid lengths to include a passive ground source of scalar representing pollution, in a domain large enough to let dispersion develop for tens of kilometres downstream. 

High-Resolution Modelling Results 

A schematic of the Met Office Unified Model nesting suite used to conduct the simulations is shown in Fig. 1. The UKV (1.5 km horizontal grid length) model was run first and used to pass boundary conditions to the 500 m model, and so on down to the 100 m and 55 m models. A puff release, homogeneous, ground source of passive scalar was included in all models and its horizontal extent covered the area of the 55 m (and 100 m) model domains. The puff releases were conducted on the hour, and at the end of each hour scalar concentration was set to zero. The case study date was 05/05/2016 with clear sky convective conditions.  

Figure 1: Schematic of the Unified Model nesting suite.

Puff Releases  

Figure 2 shows vertical cross-sections of puff released tracer in the UKV and 55 m models at 13-05, 13-20 and 13-55 UTC. At 13-05 UTC the UKV model scalar concentration is very large near the surface and approximately horizontally homogeneous. The 55 m model concentrations however are either much closer to the surface or elevated to great heights within the BL in narrow vertical regions. The heterogeneity in the 55 m model field is due to CBL turbulence being largely resolved in the 55 m model. Shortly after release, most scalar is transported predominantly horizontally rather than vertically, but at localised updrafts scalar is transported rapidly upwards. 

Figure 2: Vertical cross-sections of puff released passive scalar. (a), (b) and (c) are from the UKV model at 13-05, 13-20 and 13-55 UTC respectively. (d), (e) and (f) are from the 55 m model at 13-05, 13-20 and 13-55 UTC respectively. The x-axis is from south (left) to north (right) which is approximately the direction of mean flow. The green line is the BL scheme diagnosed BL height.

By 13-20 UTC it can be seen that the 55 m model has more scalar in the upper BL than lower BL and lowest concentrations within the BL are near the surface. However, the scalar in the UKV model disperses more slowly from the surface. Concentrations remain unrealistically larger in the lower BL than upper BL and are very horizontally homogeneous, since the “ballistic” type dispersion is not represented. By 13-55 UTC the concentration is approximately uniform (or “well mixed”) within the BL in both models and dispersion is tending to the “diffusive” limit. 

It has thus been demonstrated that unless “ballistic” type dispersion is represented in AQMs the evolution of the scalar concentration field will exhibit unphysical behaviour. In reality, pollution emissions are usually continuously released rather than puff released. One could therefore ask the question – when pollution is emitted continuously are the detailed dispersion dynamics important for urban air quality or does the dynamics of particles released at different times cancel out on average?  

Continuous Releases  

To address this question, I included a continuous release, homogeneous, ground source of passive scalar. It was centred on London and had dimensions 50 km by 50 km which is approximately the size of Greater London. Figure 3a shows a schematic of the source.  

The ratio of the 55 m model and UKV model zonally averaged surface concentration with downstream distance from the southern edge of the source is plotted in Fig. 3b. The largest difference in surface concentration between the UKV and 55m model occurs 9 km downstream, with a ratio of 0.61. This is consistent with the distance calculated from the average horizontal velocity in the BL (\approx7 ms-1) and the time at which there was most scalar in the upper BL compared to the lower BL in the puff release simulations (\approx 20 min). The scalar is lofted high into the BL soon after emission, causing reductions in surface concentrations downstream. Beyond 9 km downstream distance a larger proportion of the scalar in the BL has had time to become well-mixed and the ratio increases.  

Figure 3: (a) Schematic of the continuous release source of passive scalar. (b) Ratio of the 55 m model and UKV model zonally averaged surface concentration with downstream distance from the southern edge of the source at 13-00 UTC.


By comparing the UKV and 55 m model surface concentrations, it has been demonstrated that “ballistic” type dispersion can influence city scale surface concentrations by up to approximately 40%. It is likely that by either moving to \mathcal{O}(100 m) horizontal grid length or developing turbulence parametrisations that represent “ballistic” type dispersion, that substantial improvements in the predictive capability of AQMs can be made. 


  1. Baklanov, A. et al. (2014) Online coupled regional meteorology chemistry models in Europe: Current status and prospects https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-14-317-2014 
  1. Boutle, I. A. et al. (2016) The London Model: Forecasting fog at 333 m resolution https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.2656 
  1. Deardorff, J. (1972) Numerical Investigation of Neutral and Unstable Planetary Boundary Layers https://doi.org/10.1175/1520-0469(1972)029<0091:NIONAU>2.0.CO;2 
  1. DEFRA – air quality forecast https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/index.php/air-pollution/research/latest/air-pollution/daqi 
  1. Lean, H. W. et al. (2019) The impact of spin-up and resolution on the representation of a clear convective boundary layer over London in order 100 m grid-length versions of the Met Office Unified Model https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.3519 
  1. Lock, A. P. et al. A New Boundary Layer Mixing Scheme. Part I: Scheme Description and Single-Column Model Tests https://doi.org/10.1175/1520-0493(2000)128<3187:ANBLMS>2.0.CO;2 
  1. Savage, N. H. et al. (2013) Air quality modelling using the Met Office Unified Model (AQUM OS24-26): model description and initial evaluation https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-6-353-2013 
  1. Siebesma, A. P. et al. (2007) A Combined Eddy-Diffusivity Mass-Flux Approach for the Convective Boundary Layer https://doi.org/10.1175/JAS3888.1 
  1. Willis. G and J. Deardorff (1981) A laboratory study of dispersion from a source in the middle of the convectively mixed layer https://doi.org/10.1016/0004-6981(81)90001-9 

AMS Annual Meeting 2019

Email: l.p.blunn@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Between 6th-10th January 2019 I was fortunate enough to attend the 99th American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting in their centennial year. It was hosted in the Phoenix, Arizona Convention Center – its vast size was a necessity, seeing as there were 2300 oral presentations and 1100 poster presentations given in 460 sessions! The conferences and symposia covered a wide range of topics such as space weather, hydrology, atmospheric chemistry, climate, meteorological observations and instrumentation, tropical cyclones, monsoons and mesoscale meteorology.

Me outside one half of Phoenix Convention Center.

1500 people at the awards banquet.

The theme of this year’s meeting was “Understanding and Building Resilience to Extreme Events by Being Interdisciplinary, International, and Inclusive”. The cost of extreme events has been shown by reinsurance companies to have increased monotonically, with estimated costs for 2017 of $306 billion and 350 lives in the US. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Science (NAS), gave a town hall talk on the continued importance of evidence-based science in society (view recording). She says that NAS must become more agile at giving advice since the timescales of, for example, hurricanes and poor air quality episodes are very short, but the problems are very complex. There is reason for optimism though, as the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist who formerly served as Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma.

“Building Resilience to Extreme Events” took on another meaning with the federal shutdown and proved to be the main talking point of this year’s annual meeting. Over 500 people from federally funded organisations such as NOAA could not attend. David Goldston, director of the MIT Washington Office, gave a talk at the presidential forum entitled “Building Resilience to Extreme Political Weather: Advice for Unpredictable Times” (view recording). He made the analogy of both current US political attitude towards climate change and the federal shutdown as being ‘weather’, and thought that politics would return to long-term ‘climate’. He advised scientists to present their facts in a way understandable to public and government, prepare policy proposals, and be clear on why they are not biased. He reassured scientists by saying they have outstanding public support with 76% of the public thinking scientists act in their best interest. During the talk questions were sourced from the audience and could be voted on. The frustration of US scientists with the government was evidently large.


Questions put forward by the audience and associated votes during Goldston’s talk.

Ross Herbert (a PDRA in the Reading Meteorology Department) letting his feelings on the federal shutdown be known at the University of Oklahoma after-party.

A growing area of research is artificial and computational intelligence which had its own dedicated conference. As an early career researcher in urban and boundary layer meteorology I was interested to see a talk on “Surface Layer Flux Machine Learning Parametrisations”. By obtaining training data from observational towers it may be possible to improve upon Monin-Obukhov similarity theory in heterogeneous conditions. At the atmospheric chemistry and aerosol keynote talk by Zhanqing Li I learnt that anthropogenic emissions of aerosol can cause a feedback leading to elevated concentration of pollutants. Aerosol reduces solar radiation reaching the surface leading to less turbulence and therefore lower boundary layer height. It also causes warming at the top of the boundary layer creating a stronger capping inversion which inhibits ventilation. Anthropogenic aerosols are not just important for air quality. They affect global warming via their influence on the radiation budget and can lead to more extreme weather through enhancing deep convection.

I particularly enjoyed the poster sessions since they enabled networking with many scientists working in my area. On the first day I bumped into several Reading meteorology undergraduates on their year long exchange at the University of Oklahoma. Like me, I think they were amazed by the scale of the conference and the number of opportunities available as a meteorologist. The exhibition had over 100 organisations showcasing a wide range of products, publications and services. Anemoment (producers of lightweight, compact 3D ultrasonic anemometers) and the University of Oklahoma had stalls showing how instruments attached to drones can be used to profile the boundary layer. This has numerous possible applications such as air quality monitoring and analysing boundary layer dynamics.

The exhibition (left is a Lockheed-Martin satellite)

3rd year Reading meteorology undergraduates at the poster session.

Overall, I found the conference very motivating since it reinforced the sense that I have a fantastic opportunity to contribute to an exciting and important area of science. Next year’s annual meeting is the hundredth and will be held in Boston.