loading page

Explainable AI uncovers how neural networks learn to regionalize in simulations of turbulent heat fluxes at FluxNet sites
  • Andrew Bennett,
  • Bart Nijssen
Andrew Bennett
University of Washington, University of Washington

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

Author Profile
Bart Nijssen
University of Washington, University of Washington
Author Profile


Machine learning (ML) based models have demonstrated very strong predictive capabilities for hydrologic modeling, but are often criticized for being black-boxes. In this paper we use a technique from the field of explainable AI (XAI), called layerwise relevance propagation (LRP) to “open the black box”. Specifically we train a deep neural network on data from a set of hydroclimatically diverse FluxNet sites to predict turbulent heat fluxes, and then use the LRP technique to analyze what it learned. We show that the neural network learns physically plausible relationships, including different ways of partitioning the turbulent heat fluxes according to moisture or energy limiting characteristics of the sites. That is, the neural network learns different behaviors at arid and non-arid sites. We also develop and demonstrate a novel technique that uses the output of the LRP analysis to explore how the neural network learned to regionalize between sites. We find that the neural network primarily learned behaviors that differed between evergreen forested sites and all other vegetation classes. Our analysis shows that even simple neural networks can extract physically-plausible relationships and that by using XAI methods we can learn new information from the ML-based methods.
May 2021Published in Water Resources Research volume 57 issue 5. 10.1029/2020WR029328