Evaluation of atmospheric nitrogen deposition model performance in the context of U.S. critical load assessments

Document Type


Department or Administrative Unit


Publication Date



Air quality models are widely used to estimate pollutant deposition rates and thereby calculate critical loads and critical load exceedances (model deposition > critical load). However, model operational performance is not always quantified specifically to inform these applications. We developed a performance assessment approach designed to inform critical load and exceedance calculations, and applied it to the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. We quantified wet inorganic N deposition performance of several widely-used air quality models, including five different Community Multiscale Air Quality Model (CMAQ) simulations, the Tdep model, and ‘PRISM x NTN’ model. Modeled wet inorganic N deposition estimates were compared to wet inorganic N deposition measurements at 16 National Trends Network (NTN) monitoring sites, and to annual bulk inorganic N deposition measurements at Mount Rainier National Park. Model bias (model – observed) and error (|model – observed|) were expressed as a percentage of regional critical load values for diatoms and lichens. This novel approach demonstrated that wet inorganic N deposition bias in the Pacific Northwest approached or exceeded 100% of regional diatom and lichen critical load values at several individual monitoring sites, and approached or exceeded 50% of critical loads when averaged regionally. Even models that adjusted deposition estimates based on deposition measurements to reduce bias or that spatially-interpolated measurement data, had bias that approached or exceeded critical loads at some locations. While wet inorganic N deposition model bias is only one source of uncertainty that can affect critical load and exceedance calculations, results demonstrate expressing bias as a percentage of critical loads at a spatial scale consistent with calculations may be a useful exercise for those performing calculations. It may help decide if model performance is adequate for a particular calculation, help assess confidence in calculation results, and highlight cases where a non-deterministic approach may be needed.


This article was originally published in Atmospheric Environment. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

Due to copyright restrictions, this article is not available for free download from ScholarWorks @ CWU.


Atmospheric Environment


© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.