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Uncertainty quantification for environmental models

November 1, 2012

Environmental models are used to evaluate the fate of fertilizers in agricultural settings (including soil denitrification), the degradation of hydrocarbons at spill sites, and water supply for people and ecosystems in small to large basins and cities—to mention but a few applications of these models. They also play a role in understanding and diagnosing potential environmental impacts of global climate change. The models are typically mildly to extremely nonlinear. The persistent demand for enhanced dynamics and resolution to improve model realism [17] means that lengthy individual model execution times will remain common, notwithstanding continued enhancements in computer power. In addition, high-dimensional parameter spaces are often defined, which increases the number of model runs required to quantify uncertainty [2]. Some environmental modeling projects have access to extensive funding and computational resources; many do not. The many recent studies of uncertainty quantification in environmental model predictions have focused on uncertainties related to data error and sparsity of data, expert judgment expressed mathematically through prior information, poorly known parameter values, and model structure (see, for example, [1,7,9,10,13,18]). Approaches for quantifying uncertainty include frequentist (potentially with prior information [7,9]), Bayesian [13,18,19], and likelihood-based. A few of the numerous methods, including some sensitivity and inverse methods with consequences for understanding and quantifying uncertainty, are as follows: Bayesian hierarchical modeling and Bayesian model averaging; single-objective optimization with error-based weighting [7] and multi-objective optimization [3]; methods based on local derivatives [2,7,10]; screening methods like OAT (one at a time) and the method of Morris [14]; FAST (Fourier amplitude sensitivity testing) [14]; the Sobol' method [14]; randomized maximum likelihood [10]; Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) [10]. There are also bootstrapping and cross-validation approaches.Sometimes analyses are conducted using surrogate models [12]. The availability of so many options can be confusing. Categorizing methods based on fundamental questions assists in communicating the essential results of uncertainty analyses to stakeholders. Such questions can focus on model adequacy (e.g., How well does the model reproduce observed system characteristics and dynamics?) and sensitivity analysis (e.g., What parameters can be estimated with available data? What observations are important to parameters and predictions? What parameters are important to predictions?), as well as on the uncertainty quantification (e.g., How accurate and precise are the predictions?). The methods can also be classified by the number of model runs required: few (10s to 1000s) or many (10,000s to 1,000,000s). Of the methods listed above, the most computationally frugal are generally those based on local derivatives; MCMC methods tend to be among the most computationally demanding. Surrogate models (emulators)do not necessarily produce computational frugality because many runs of the full model are generally needed to create a meaningful surrogate model. With this categorization, we can, in general, address all the fundamental questions mentioned above using either computationally frugal or demanding methods. Model development and analysis can thus be conducted consistently using either computation-ally frugal or demanding methods; alternatively, different fundamental questions can be addressed using methods that require different levels of effort. Based on this perspective, we pose the question: Can computationally frugal methods be useful companions to computationally demanding meth-ods? The reliability of computationally frugal methods generally depends on the model being reasonably linear, which usually means smooth nonlin-earities and the assumption of Gaussian errors; both tend to be more valid with more linear

Publication Year 2012
Title Uncertainty quantification for environmental models
Authors Mary C. Hill, Dan Lu, Dmitri Kavetski, Martyn P. Clark, Ming Ye
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title SIAM News
Index ID 70189182
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Central Branch