Toward interpretable LSTM-based modeling of hydrological systems

Luis Andres De La Fuente, Mohammad Reza Ehsani, Hoshin Vijai Gupta, Laura Elizabeth Condon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Several studies have demonstrated the ability of long short-term memory (LSTM) machine-learning-based modeling to outperform traditional spatially lumped process-based modeling approaches for streamflow prediction. However, due mainly to the structural complexity of the LSTM network (which includes gating operations and sequential processing of the data), difficulties can arise when interpreting the internal processes and weights in the model. Here, we propose and test a modification of LSTM architecture that is calibrated in a manner that is analogous to a hydrological system. Our architecture, called "HydroLSTM", simulates the sequential updating of the Markovian storage while the gating operation has access to historical information. Specifically, we modify how data are fed to the new representation to facilitate simultaneous access to past lagged inputs and consolidated information, which explicitly acknowledges the importance of trends and patterns in the data. We compare the performance of the HydroLSTM and LSTM architectures using data from 10 hydro-climatically varied catchments. We further examine how the new architecture exploits the information in lagged inputs, for 588 catchments across the USA. The HydroLSTM-based models require fewer cell states to obtain similar performance to their LSTM-based counterparts. Further, the weight patterns associated with lagged input variables are interpretable and consistent with regional hydroclimatic characteristics (snowmelt-dominated, recent rainfall-dominated, and historical rainfall-dominated). These findings illustrate how the hydrological interpretability of LSTM-based models can be enhanced by appropriate architectural modifications that are physically and conceptually consistent with our understanding of the system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)945-971
Number of pages27
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 27 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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