nc-complex is a lightweight, drop-in extension for netCDF that handles reading and writing complex numbers. Currently there are C and C++ APIs, and it has been integrated into netcdf4-python. A Fortran API is also planned.

The nc-complex library understands most of the major existing conventions for storing complex numbers, including as a compound datatype or as a dimension of size two, and should work for any netCDF file format. See below for details of complex number conventions in netCDF.


nc-complex is implemented as a set of wrappers around the standard netCDF functions, that take care of abstracting over the actual storage convention for complex numbers being used. The wrappers have the same signatures as the functions they wrap, but are named pfnc_* (for PlasmaFAIR) instead of nc_*.

We can simply replace nc_def_var

In C, the only new function we strictly need is pfnc_get_double_complex_typeid, which creates a netCDF compound type representing complex numbers. If such a type already exists in the file, this is used instead of making a new one.

A stripped-down example using this:

nc_create(filename, NC_NETCDF4 | NC_CLOBBER, &ncid);
nc_def_dim(ncid, "x", len_x, &x_dim_id);

pfnc_def_var(ncid, "data_complex", PFNC_DOUBLE_COMPLEX, 1, dim_ids, &var_id);

nc_put_var(ncid, var_id, data);

pfnc_get_vara_double_complex(ncid, var_id, starts, NULL, data_out);

Here we’ve used pfnc_def_var to define the variable in the file, and used PFNC_DOUBLE_COMPLEX as the datatype. This takes care of ensuring there is a compound datatype already in the file.

That’s it!

Well, almost. There are some subtleties when using certain file formats, like NETCDF3, which don’t support user defined datatypes. In those cases, nc-complex will automatically fall back to using a complex dimension instead. It’s also possible to explicitly request a complex dimension instead of a datatype by using PFNC_DOUBLE_COMPLEX_DIM with pfnc_def_var.

Complex dimensions require some careful handling, as the variable in your code will have different dimensions to the netCDF variable. nc-complex also automatically takes care of this too:

double_complex data[len_x];
size_t starts[1] = {0};
size_t counts[1] = {len_x};
pfnc_get_vara_double_complex(ncid, var_id, &starts, &counts, data)

Here, if the variable has a complex dimension, then using the traditional netCDF API would require starts and counts to be of length two – however, nc-complex handles all this under the hood, and so the same snippet above will work the same, whichever convention is being used in the file.


The C++ API inherits from the netcdf-cxx4 API and aims to be a completely drop-in replacement. Just #include our header and change the netCDF:: namespace to nc_complex:::

#include "nc_complex/nc_complex_cpp.h"

nc_complex::NcFile nc_file{filename, nc_complex::NcFile::FileMode::read};

If you already have using namespace netCDF, changing this to using namespace nc_complex should be sufficient to start using complex numbers.

NcVar::putVar and NcVar::getVar will accept pointers to complex numbers, and you can define a new variable with a complex type like so:

using namespace nc_complex;
NcFile nc_file{full_filename, NcFile::FileMode::newFile};
const NcDim x_dim = nc_file.addDim("x", len_x);
auto var = nc_file.addVar("data", NcDoubleComplex{}, x_dim);


There is currently no specialised support for variable length (“VLens”) datasets: use at your own risk!

The problem#

Complex numbers are widely used in the physical sciences ([citation needed]). As of 2023, netCDF, a very popular file format for research software, is lacking a native complex number datatype. This means that software authors wishing to write complex data to netCDF have to roll their own, with the result that there are several competing methods of doing so.

One reason why netCDF is lacking a complex datatype is because its main, modern backing file format, HDF5, is also lacking one. This has been requested since at least 2010. This discussion has a synopsis of the situation in HDF5.

Even if native complex types make it into both HDF5 and netCDF, there will still be legacy applications and existing files using these other methods, and it would be useful to have analysis tools be able to read all of them.

The aim of nc-complex is to smooth over these differences and present a single interface for reading and modifying complex data stored in all common conventions, and writing to a single blessed representation.

Conventions for Complex Numbers#

There are several existing conventions for storing complex numbers, which boil down to three main flavours:

  1. A compound datatype with fields for the real and imaginary components;

  2. An extra dimension with length 2;

  3. Separate variables for the real and imaginary components.

Each flavour has several variations, mainly around the names used for the real/imaginary components, and whether the numbers are stored in Cartesian/rectangular or polar convention (using magnitude and phase angle).

Currently, nc-complex supports complex datatypes and dimensions, with some variations on these flavours.

You can find examples of all three flavours (and their variations) in the wild, although given the nature of research software, it’s difficult to accurately survey the field and determine which flavour is most used.

However, we can look at how complex numbers are natively represented in programming languages with official netCDF bindings, as well as HDF5 libraries, and other file formats commonly used in research software.

Native Complex Numbers in Programming Languages#

Of the various official language bindings for netCDF, four have native complex number types: C, C++, Fortran, Python. There are also unofficial bindings for other languages, which also have native complex numbers, such as Julia, Matlab, and R.

In all of these languages, complex numbers have the same byte representation which is equivalent to an array or struct of two floating point numbers, the real part followed by the imaginary part. Note that this doesn’t seem to always be defined as such at the language standard level, but does appear to always be true in practice. All languages do explicitly use the Cartesian/rectangular form, rather than polar, although they may have conversion functions.

Cppreference demonstrates this layout:

float a[4] = {1, 2, 3, 4};
float complex z1, z2;
memcpy(&z1, a, sizeof z1); // z1 becomes 1.0 + 2.0i
memcpy(&z2, a+2, sizeof z2); // z2 becomes 3.0 + 4.0i

The actual implementation in terms of an array, struct, or native type varies between languages. For example, C++ defines a std::complex type in the <complex> header, while Fortran has a native type complex.

Regardless of the implementation, most languages call the two components real and imag. These may be struct members (or member functions), as in C++ and Fortran, or free functions, as in Julia or C (although in C they are called creal and cimag).

There is a lot more variation in the name of the imaginary unit (i literal suffix in C and C++, im in Julia, j in Python), but this is not important for us here.

Complex Numbers in other IO Libraries#

We’ve looked at how complex numbers are represented in memory, now let’s consider how other IO libraries store them on disk. We’re only interested in libraries that aim for some degree of portability, and particularly those used in the scientific community.

Let’s first look at the Python and Julia bindings for HDF5: h5py and HDF5.jl. These both store complex numbers using a compound datatype (flavour 1 above), with configurable field names that default to r, i. HDF5.jl is explicitly modelled on h5py. There’s also hdf5-rust which also follows this convention.

Matlab’s .mat files are just plain HDF5 files, and since version 2006b [citation needed] they also use compound types, although with the field names real and imag.

H5netcdf is “a Python implementation of the netCDF4 file format base on h5py”. Writing complex numbers uses h5py’s datatype, although an explicit invalid_netcdf=True flag must be passed when opening a file in order to do so. The reason for this is that h5py doesn’t commit the datatype to the HDF5 file, instead it’s stored in the variable directly resulting in an unnamed (or “transient”) datatype. Previous versions of netCDF were unable to read variables using such datatypes, although this was recently fixed due to work by PlasmaFAIR, and the next version of netCDF will be able to read files with complex numbers written by h5netcdf/h5py.

Zarr is “a format for the storage of chunked, compressed, N-dimensional arrays”, and can store files on disk, in a Zip file, or in cloud storage. It’s also a possible backing store for netCDF. Zarr uses the numpy dtypes system and can natively handle complex numbers.

ADIOS2 is a “unified high-performance IO framework” for the HPC community, and can handle things like coupling code or streaming data across a network, as well as writing to file. ADIOS2 supports several backend engines, including HDF5, as well as its own binary-packed .bp format. For most of its backends, complex numbers seem to be streamed as-is, but for HDF5 they use a compound type with fields r and i.

[TREXIO][trexio] is a file format for quantum chemistry calculations, and is backed either by plain text or HDF5. This uses the split variable scheme, with the real part having an undecorated name, and the imaginary part an "_im" suffix.

Conventions used in applications#

It’s difficult to accurately assess exactly what approaches are used by the community. The following survey represents a couple of hours of effort searching on GitHub for variations on “complex number” and “netCDF” or “HDF5”. Searching for the specific netCDF functions is difficult as it mostly returns either forks or netCDF vendored/bundled into another package.

Of course, this only covers open source software, as it’s even more difficult to find proprietary software that uses netCDF or HDF5 and also supports complex numbers, let alone work out what convention it might use.

1. Compound types#

  • GDAL ("r", "i")

    • Note: big ecosystem built on this!

    • Interface over many, many file types, but this applies to netCDF and HDF5

  • QCoDeS ("r", "i")

    • Uses h5netcdf

  • deal.ii ("r", "i")

    • Actually writes to HDF5, netCDF output deprecated

  • DCA++ ("r", "i")

    • HDF5

  • Armadillo ("real", "imag")

    • HDF5

  • FlexiBLAS ("real", "imag")

    • HDF5

  • Eigen-HDF5 ("r", "i")

    • HDF5

  • Yardl ("real", "imaginary")

    • HDF5 and JSON

  • pyuvdata ("r", "i")

    • HDF5

2. Dimensions#

3. Split variables#

  • Nansat, ("*_real", "*_imag")

  • mafredo ("real", "imag" variables in separate group per variable)

  • SONAR-netcdf4 ("*_r", "*_i")

    • This is actually a schema itself, rather than a single application

  • cgenie.muffin ("*_re", "*_im")

  • Abinit ("*_real", "*_imag")

  • kineticj ("*_re", "*_im")

  • EDGI_PCA ("*_re", "*_im")

  • ITensor ("r", "i" variables in separate group per variable)

4. Other representations#

  • STELLOPT using EZcdf, which doubles the length of the leading dimension


Overall, I found 22 pieces of software (not including the explicit IO libraries and wrappers) using 13 different representations. Packages using HDF5 directly seem to exclusively use compound datatypes, and almost all name the fields r and i. I only found four packages using dimensions, and each one used a different name for it (including the surprising "depth"!). Eight packages used two separate variables, with five different naming conventions, including two which use a group containing two variables for the separate components to represent the whole variable. A single package used an apparently unique representation, doubling the length of the fastest dimension.

Perhaps an important point to note, I struggled to find any uses of netCDF compound types in production use. Searches for nf90_def_compound (and ruling out any forks or bundled copies of netCDF-Fortran) turn up no results at all, while I found it almost impossible to find any real results for nc_def_compound, wading through the many bundled copies of netCDF-C. It’s not immediately obvious why this is case, especially compared to uses of compound types in HDF5 code.


nc-complex is released under the MIT licence.


Indices and tables#