Investigating sources of variability and error in simulations of carbon dioxide in an urban region

Cory R. Martin, N. Zeng, A. Karion, K. Mueller, S. Ghosh, I. Lopez-Coto, K. R. Gurney, T. Oda, K. Prasad, Y. Liu, R. R. Dickerson, J. Whetstone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


As cities embark upon greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation efforts, there is an increasing need for accurate quantification of urban emissions. In urban areas, transport and dispersion is particularly difficult to simulate using current mesoscale meteorological models due, in part, to added complexity from surface heterogeneity and fine spatial/temporal scales. It is generally assumed that the errors in GHG estimation methods in urban areas are dominated by errors in transport and dispersion. Other significant errors include, but are not limited to, those from assumed emissions magnitude and spatial distribution. To assess the predictability of simulated trace gas mole fractions in urban observing systems using a numerical weather prediction model, we employ an Eulerian model that combines traditional meteorological variables with multiple passive tracers of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from anthropogenic inventories and a biospheric model. The predictability of the Eulerian model is assessed by comparing simulated atmospheric CO2 mole fractions to observations from four in situ tower sites (three urban and one rural) in the Washington DC/Baltimore, MD area for February 2016. Four different gridded fossil fuel emissions inventories along with a biospheric flux model are used to create an ensemble of simulated atmospheric CO2 observations within the model. These ensembles help to evaluate whether the modeled observations are impacted more by the underlying emissions or transport. The spread of modeled observations using the four emission fields indicates the model's ability to distinguish between the different inventories under various meteorological conditions. Overall, the Eulerian model performs well; simulated and observed average CO2 mole fractions agree within 1% when averaged at the three urban sites across the month. However, there can be differences greater than 10% at any given hour, which are attributed to complex meteorological conditions rather than differences in the inventories themselves. On average, the mean absolute error of the simulated compared to actual observations is generally twice as large as the standard deviation of the modeled mole fractions across the four emission inventories. This result supports the assumption, in urban domains, that the predicted mole fraction error relative to observations is dominated by errors in model meteorology rather than errors in the underlying fluxes in winter months. As such, minimizing errors associated with atmospheric transport and dispersion may help improve the performance of GHG estimation models more so than improving flux priors in the winter months. We also find that the errors associated with atmospheric transport in urban domains are not restricted to certain times of day. This suggests that atmospheric inversions should use CO2 observations that have been filtered using meteorological observations rather than assuming that meteorological modeling is most accurate at certain times of day (such as using only mid-afternoon observations).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-69
Number of pages15
JournalAtmospheric Environment
StatePublished - Feb 15 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • CO
  • Climate
  • Emissions
  • Flux
  • Urban

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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