Physics-Aware Nonparametric Regression Models for Earth Data Analysis


Process understanding and modeling is at the core of scientific reasoning. Principled parametric and mechanistic modeling dominated science and engineering until the recent emergence of machine learning (ML). Despite great success in many areas, ML algorithms in the Earth and climate sciences, and more broadly in physical sciences, are not explicitly designed to be physically-consistent and may, therefore, violate the most basic laws of physics. In this work, motivated by the field of algorithmic fairness, we reconcile data-driven ML with physics modeling by illustrating a nonparametric and nonlinear physics-aware regression method. By incorporating a dependence-based regularizer, the method leads to models that are consistent with domain knowledge, as reflected by either simulations from physical models or ancillary data. The idea can conversely encourage independence of model predictions with other variables that are known to be uncertain either in their representation or magnitude. The method is computationally efficient and comes with a closed-form analytic solution. Through a consistency-vs-accuracy path diagram, one can assess the consistency between data-driven models and physical models. We demonstrate in three examples on simulations and measurement data in Earth and climate studies that the proposed ML framework allows us to trade-off physical consistency and accuracy.

Environmental Research Letters