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HESS Opinions: Hydrologic predictions in a changing environment: behavioral modeling

Most hydrological models are valid at most only in a few places and cannot be reasonably transferred to other places or to far distant time periods. Transfer in space is difficult because the models are conditioned on past observations at particular places to define parameter values and unobservable processes that are needed to fully characterize the structure and functioning of the landscape. Transfer in time has to deal with the likely temporal changes to both parameters and processes under future changed conditions. This remains an important obstacle to addressing some of the most urgent prediction questions in hydrology, such as prediction in ungauged basins and prediction under global change. In this paper, we propose a new approach to catchment hydrological modeling, based on universal principles that do not change in time and that remain valid across many places. The key to this framework, which we call behavioral modeling, is to assume that there are universal and time-invariant organizing principles that can be used to identify the most appropriate model structure (including parameter values) and responses for a given ecosystem at a given moment in time. These organizing principles may be derived from fundamental physical or biological laws, or from empirical laws that have been demonstrated to be time-invariant and to hold at many places and scales. Much fundamental research remains to be undertaken to help discover these organizing principles on the basis of exploration of observed patterns of landscape structure and hydrological behavior and their interpretation as legacy effects of past co-evolution of climate, soils, topography, vegetation and humans. Our hope is that the new behavioral modeling framework will be a step forward towards a new vision for hydrology where models are capable of more confidently predicting the behavior of catchments beyond what has been observed or experienced before.

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