Two decades of anarchy? Emerging themes and outstanding challenges for neural network modelling of surface hydrology

This paper traces two decades of neural network rainfall-runoff and streamflow modelling, collectively termed ‘river forecasting’. The field is now firmly established and the research community involved has much to offer hydrological science. First, however, it will be necessary to converge on more objective and consistent protocols for: selecting and treating inputs prior to model development; extracting physically meaningful insights from each proposed solution; and improving transparency in the benchmarking and reporting of experimental case studies. It is also clear that neural network river forecasting solutions will have limited appeal for operational purposes until confidence intervals can be attached to forecasts. Modular design, ensemble experiments, and hybridization with conventional hydrological models are yielding new tools for decision-making. The full potential for modelling complex hydrological systems, and for characterizing uncertainty, has yet to be realized. Further gains could also emerge from the provision of an agreed set of benchmark data sets and associated development of superior diagnostics for more rigorous intermodel evaluation. To achieve these goals will require a paradigm shift, such that the mass of individual isolated activities, focused on incremental technical refinement, is replaced by a more coordinated, problem-solving international research body.