The NetCDF library [NetCDF] is designed to read and write data that has been structured according to well-defined rules and is easily ported across various computer platforms. The netCDF interface enables but does not require the creation of self-describing datasets. The purpose of the CF conventions is to require conforming datasets to contain sufficient metadata that they are self-describing in the sense that each variable in the file has an associated description of what it represents, including physical units if appropriate, and that each value can be located in space (relative to earth-based coordinates) and time.
An important benefit of a convention is that it enables software tools to display data and perform operations on specified subsets of the data with minimal user intervention. It is possible to provide the metadata describing how a field is located in time and space in many different ways that a human would immediately recognize as equivalent. The purpose in restricting how the metadata is represented is to make it practical to write software that allows a machine to parse that metadata and to automatically associate each data value with its location in time and space. It is equally important that the metadata be easy for human users to write and to understand.
This standard is intended for use with climate and forecast data, for atmosphere, surface and ocean, and was designed with model-generated data particularly in mind. We recognise that there are limits to what a standard can practically cover; we restrict ourselves to issues that we believe to be of common and frequent concern in the design of climate and forecast metadata. Our main purpose therefore, is to propose a clear, adequate and flexible definition of the metadata needed for climate and forecast data. Although this is specifically a netCDF standard, we feel that most of the ideas are of wider application. The metadata objects could be contained in file formats other than netCDF. Conversion of the metadata between files of different formats will be facilitated if conventions for all formats are based on similar ideas.
This convention is designed to be backward compatible with the COARDS conventions [COARDS], by which we mean that a conforming COARDS dataset also conforms to the CF standard. Thus new applications that implement the CF conventions will be able to process COARDS datasets.
We have also striven to maximize conformance to the COARDS standard, that is, wherever the COARDS metadata conventions provide an adequate description we require their use. Extensions to COARDS are implemented in a manner such that the content that doesn't depend on the extensions is still accessible to applications that adhere to the COARDS standard.