3 years ago

Stationarity is undead: Uncertainty dominates the distribution of extremes

The increasing effort to develop and apply nonstationary models in hydrologic frequency analyses under changing environmental conditions can be frustrated when the additional uncertainty related to the model complexity is accounted for along with the sampling uncertainty. In order to show the practical implications and possible problems of using nonstationary models and provide critical guidelines, in this study we review the main tools developed in this field (such as nonstationary distribution functions, return periods, and risk of failure) highlighting advantages and disadvantages. The discussion is supported by three case studies that revise three illustrative examples reported in the scientific and technical literature referring to the Little Sugar Creek (at Charlotte, North Carolina), Red River of the North (North Dakota/Minnesota), and the Assunpink Creek (at Trenton, New Jersey). The uncertainty of the results is assessed by complementing point estimates with confidence intervals (CIs) and emphasizing critical aspects such as the subjectivity affecting the choice of the models’ structure. Our results show that (1) nonstationary frequency analyses should not only be based on at-site time series but require additional information and detailed exploratory data analyses (EDA); (2) as nonstationary models imply that the time-varying model structure holds true for the entire future design life period, an appropriate modeling strategy requires that EDA identifies a well-defined deterministic mechanism leading the examined process; (3) when the model structure cannot be inferred in a deductive manner and nonstationary models are fitted by inductive inference, model structure introduces an additional source of uncertainty so that the resulting nonstationary models can provide no practical enhancement of the credibility and accuracy of the predicted extreme quantiles, whereas possible model misspecification can easily lead to physically inconsistent results; (4) when the model structure is uncertain, stationary models and a suitable assessment of the uncertainty accounting for possible temporal persistence should be retained as more theoretically coherent and reliable options for practical applications in real-world design and management problems; (5) a clear understanding of the actual probabilistic meaning of stationary and nonstationary return periods and risk of failure is required for a correct risk assessment and communication.

Publisher URL: www.sciencedirect.com/science

DOI: S0309170815000020

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