June 6, 2023

Understanding the Physics Representation of Deep Learning Models in Environmental Applications


Deep learning (DL) models have been popular in earth and environmental modeling and analysis, which exhibit huge potential in capturing and reconstructing the non-linearity of relevant environmental processes. They are extensively used as analytical tools or emulators for multiple domains (atmosphere, land surface, ocean, and biogeochemistry). Despite their success, their internal working mechanism remains largely unknown. Such a lack of knowledge hinders the identification of physically consistent models that are fully adaptive to non-stationary climate, as well as the development of physics-informed machine learning such as physics-informed neural network (PINN). To establish preliminary knowledge and framework of such physics representation evaluation, this project focuses on an improved understanding of DL models in the environmental applications. DL models are increasingly applied to environmental modeling and prediction. However, they have been evaluated mostly from a performance perspective, and there is a gap in understanding how they represent the known physics internally. Such knowledge is especially critical when applying DL models under climate change conditions, where new inputs are likely outside the ranges of the training datasets. In this project, we reveal how the known physical processes are represented within DL models from both statistical and mechanistic perspectives. Leveraging the traditional model evaluations that focus more on the accuracies of predictions, we establish a framework that examines both the accuracy and physics representation of DL models. This analysis framework can identify DL models that make the correct predictions based on correct physics, thus enhancing the existing explainable artificial intelligence (explainable-AI) portfolio. It lays a foundation for developing novel metrics to evaluate the emerging DL models in environmental applications. This knowledge also informs the development of physics-informed DL models by revealing the direct connections between the known physical processes and specific model components or structures.

Published: June 6, 2023


Chen X., L. Leung, S. Wang, and Z. Duan. 2022. Understanding the Physics Representation of Deep Learning Models in Environmental Applications Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.