A Bayesian approach to improved calibration and prediction of groundwater models with structural error

Tianfang Xu, Albert J. Valocchi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Numerical groundwater flow and solute transport models are usually subject to model structural error due to simplification and/or misrepresentation of the real system, which raises questions regarding the suitability of conventional least squares regression-based (LSR) calibration. We present a new framework that explicitly describes the model structural error statistically in an inductive, data-driven way. We adopt a fully Bayesian approach that integrates Gaussian process error models into the calibration, prediction, and uncertainty analysis of groundwater flow models. We test the usefulness of the fully Bayesian approach with a synthetic case study of the impact of pumping on surface-ground water interaction. We illustrate through this example that the Bayesian parameter posterior distributions differ significantly from parameters estimated by conventional LSR, which does not account for model structural error. For the latter method, parameter compensation for model structural error leads to biased, overconfident prediction under changing pumping condition. In contrast, integrating Gaussian process error models significantly reduces predictive bias and leads to prediction intervals that are more consistent with validation data. Finally, we carry out a generalized LSR recalibration step to assimilate the Bayesian prediction while preserving mass conservation and other physical constraints, using a full error covariance matrix obtained from Bayesian results. It is found that the recalibrated model achieved lower predictive bias compared to the model calibrated using conventional LSR. The results highlight the importance of explicit treatment of model structural error especially in circumstances where subsequent decision-making and risk analysis require accurate prediction and uncertainty quantification.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9290-9311
Number of pages22
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015


  • Bayesian calibration
  • Gaussian process
  • model error
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


Dive into the research topics of 'A Bayesian approach to improved calibration and prediction of groundwater models with structural error'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this