The Atmospheric Boundary Layer

Meteorology 556 – The Atmospheric Boundary Layer

Lectures 1:35-2:50pm Tu/Th

Class web page: 

Course description: The atmospheric boundary layer is the layer of the atmosphere that is in frequent contact with the surface of the earth. It is the layer where life exists, and which mediates exchanges of energy, momentum, and chemicals between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere. The scales of motion in the atmospheric boundary layer, because of the presence of the earth’s surface, are small compared to the rest of the atmosphere. The dynamics, therefore, differ from those found in the “free” atmosphere.

This course describes the physical properties of the layer of the earth’s atmosphere that is in frequent contact with the earth’s surface, the atmospheric boundary layer. The course includes a descriptive overview of this layer using observations, then presents the governing equations and common simplifications used to describe the boundary layer. Conservation of mass, energy, and momentum, are covered. A core principle is the decomposition of the governing equations into a mean state and turbulent components, and the challenges introduced by this decomposition. The concepts of eddy diffusivity and closure methods are motivated by this challenge.

These principles and governing equations are used to understand the typical evolution of the atmospheric boundary layer as a function of time of day. Convective and stable boundary layer conditions are contrasted. The contrasting conditions are linked to changes in the exchange of energy, momentum and water vapor at the earth’s surface. The fundamentals of plume dispersion are described and tested. A simple numerical model of the atmospheric boundary layer is discussed and applied to atmospheric data.

Stability conditions in the atmosphere are further explored using the equation for turbulent kinetic energy. Parameters describing the turbulence state of the surface layer and boundary layer, including the Obukhov length, friction velocity, convective velocity scale, and Richardson number, are discussed and applied to typical boundary layer conditions and observations. Similarity theory is discussed as a means of describing turbulent properties of the atmospheric boundary layer as a function of stability conditions. Monin-Obukhov similarity theory for the surface layer is applied to atmospheric observations. Additional common atmospheric boundary layer states are described, including cloud topped boundary layers, marine boundary layers, and boundary layers in heterogeneous terrain.

Observational, measurement and numerical methods are presented and used in class assignments.

Objectives:  After successfully completing this course, a student will be able to.

  • recognize and describe the characteristics of the atmospheric boundary layer (ABL) and how it varies with time and in different environments;

  • readily apply the basic equations describing the ABL, and demonstrate understanding of the assumptions and conditions that make those equations applicable;

  • apply the equations governing the ABL to explain ABL phenomena quantitatively;

  • engage in non-quantitative, intuitive reasoning to formulate hypotheses concerning ABL phenomena;

  • apply some of the current methods used in the study of the ABL;

  • read, synthesize, and report on research literature in the field;

  • pose, perform, and report on research questions in boundary layer meteorology. 


Kenneth Davis, Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Science, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science

512 Walker Building, 814-863-8601,

Office hours: 10-11am W; 3-4pm F.  You are free to contact me at other times.  Email works well. I will sometimes miss these hours due to travel or meetings that are scheduled for me.  In these cases, I’ll give you as much warning as possible and find alternative hours.  

Important prior knowledge: Thermodynamics (e.g. Meteorology 431 or the equivalent), fluid mechanics applied to atmospheric flows (e.g. Meteorology 421, 521 or the equivalent), and comfort with quantitative data analyses.  The course is intended for graduate students in Meteorology and Atmospheric Science.  Graduate students from related fields with a sound knowledge of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics are welcome. Undergraduates in Meteorology seeking a more challenging treatment of materials covered in Meteorology 454 are also welcome. 

Class Expectations and Norms:

  • Students are encouraged to participate actively in class. If at all possible let me know in advance when you cannot attend.  If you miss a class, you are welcome to schedule time for an update on the materials covered.
  • Classes will most often be lecture format but fairly interactive.
  • Questions and discussions are always encouraged, in class and outside of class.
  • Due dates can be flexible if you have a good reason and give advance notice, but avoid this if at all possible to keep on track and keep the class together.
  • Assignments must be done individually. Any shared work on research projects must be approved in advance.  Collaborative discussion outside of class is allowed.
  • Students in this class are expected to write up their problem sets individually, to work the exams on their own, and to write their papers in their own words using proper citations. Class members may work on the problem sets in groups, but then each student must write up the answers separately.  Students are not to copy problem or exam answers from another person's paper and present them as their own; students may not plagiarize text from papers or websites written by others.  Students who present other people's work as their own will receive at least a 0 on the assignment and may well receive an F or XF in the course.  Please see: Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Policy:, which this course adopts. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students." 

Materials: Most reading and some homework problems will be taken from An Introduction to Boundary Layer Meteorology by Roland Stull.  This text is strongly recommended. I may also use and refer to texts by Garratt, The Atmospheric Boundary Layer, Wyngaard, Turbulence in the Atmosphere, and Panofsky and Dutton, Atmospheric Turbulence. 

Assistance with Textbooks: Penn State honors and values the socioeconomic diversity of our students. If you require assistance with the costs of textbooks for this course, contact the Office of Student and Family Services (120 Boucke Building, 863-4926, For additional need related to socioeconomic status please visit

Assignments and their intended purpose:

  1. Reading will be assigned and is best done in advance of the relevant lectures. Do not worry if you don't understand everything the first time you read it. Instead, try to do the reading prior to lecture even if you have to skip over some material that doesn't make much sense to you.  Ask questions in class or during office hours.
  2. Problem sets will focus on the core understanding that is being taught. I will design lectures around the problem sets, and the problem sets around the essential course units. Problem sets will be graded, though perhaps not in their entirety.
  3. Problem set solutions will be asked of a subset of students for each assignment. You must have these solutions approved by me prior to submitting them. They will be posted after the problem sets are turned in to aid preparation for the final exam.
  4. The exam will be comprehensive, will be open book and notes (yours only), and will be meant to reinforce your understanding of the materials covered in lecture and in the homework assignments.
  5. Literature reviews will enable you to explore, synthesize and report on a set of ABL research literature of your interest. The topic and scope must be approved in advance.
  6. Research projects will enable you to formulate, conduct and report on a simple scientific question in boundary layer meteorology. Topics must be approved in advance. 

Grading:  If grades run high, grades will be assigned on an absolute basis: 90% and above = A, 80-89 = B, etc.  I reserve the right to make this grading scale easier.  If assignments and exams prove more difficult than the scale above, I will curve the grades.  I will endeavor to give everyone a good feel for the course grading fairly early in the semester.  The overall course grade will be weighted approximately as follows:

  • Problem sets 45% (~6 assignments, ~7.5% each)
  • Exams 15% (one exam)
  • Research projects / literature reviews 40% (~3 assigned, ~13% each)

The weighting might change as the semester develops.  If so, you will be warned promptly, and the change will reflect where most of your work is being devoted. 

Schedule with due dates, and list of class topics: See additional documentation.

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy. 

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: ( For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources website ( 

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation: If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations. 


Regular attendance is critical for building on the skills and knowledge developed throughout the class. Students who participate have a more complete understanding of the material presented and are more likely to succeed in the class. This is true whether your attendance is face-to-face or remote.  This course abides by the Penn State Attendance Policy E-11:, and Conflict Exam Policy 44-35: Please also see Illness Verification Policy:, and Religious Observance Policy: Students who miss class for legitimate reasons will be given a reasonable opportunity to make up missed work, including exams and quizzes.  In all cases, you should inform me in advance, when possible. Missing class, even for a legitimate purpose, may mean there is work that cannot be made up, hurting your grade in this class..   In addition to illness, legitimate reasons for missing class include religious observance, military service, family emergencies, regularly scheduled university-approved curricular or extracurricular activities, and post-graduate, career-related interviews when there is no opportunity for students to re-schedule these opportunities (such as employment and graduate school final interviews).  Students who encounter serious family, health, or personal situations that result in extended absences should contact the Office of the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (AVPSA) and Student Care and Advocacy for help: .  Whenever possible, students participating in University-approved activities should submit to the instructor a Class Absence Form:, at least one week prior to the activity. 

Reporting Bias-Motivated Incidents

Penn State takes great pride to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff.  Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated ( and can be reported through Educational Equity via the Report Bias webpage

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation.  Services include the following: 

Recommended Policies

Webcam Requirements

This course may require you to have a webcam for class assessments. Classes and assessments may be conducted using Zoom or other technology selected by your instructor which may use your computer’s webcam or other technologies to communicate, monitor, and/or record classes, class activities, and assessments. Assessments may also be conducted using proctoring software, which may listen to you, monitor your computer screen, view you and your surroundings, and record (including visual and audio recordings) all activity during the proctoring process. Please contact your instructor if you are unable to comply or have any questions or concerns. 

Syllabus and Paper Acknowledgement Forms
It is the recommendation of the college that all students sign and return the Syllabus Acknowledgement Form ( acknowledgement form.doc) during the first week of the semester. In addition, The College also recommends the Paper Submission Form ( submission form.docx) as a way to have students take responsibility for papers/labs/homework done as part of group work.

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from Penn State are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail (see to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information. 

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40 ( To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period. It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion.  If, for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made. 

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute Technical Requirements page (, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the ITS Help Desk (


The term "Netiquette" refers to the etiquette guidelines for electronic communications, such as e-mail and bulletin board postings. Netiquette covers not only rules to maintain civility in discussions, but also special guidelines unique to the electronic nature of forum messages. Please review some general Netiquette guidelines that should be followed when communicating in this course. 

Disruptive Behavior

Behavior that disrupts normal classroom activities will not be tolerated, in accordance with Items 9 and 14 in the Student Code of Conduct

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework.  For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website. 

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

Accessible Syllabus

Notes: Any syllabus posted online (e.g. a Word/PDF file or an online syllabus) should make destinations clickable links such as is done throughout this page. Also, in order to comply with Penn State Policy AD69 (Accessibility of Penn State Web Pages,, PDF documents cannot be the sole source of presenting online information. Such documents include syllabi, homework assignments, and scanned notes. 

Disclaimer Statement

Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. Changes to the syllabus shall also be given to the student in written (paper or electronic) form.