Articles | Volume 11, issue 4
Research article
27 Feb 2014
Research article |  | 27 Feb 2014

Technical Note: Approximate Bayesian parameterization of a process-based tropical forest model

F. Hartig, C. Dislich, T. Wiegand, and A. Huth

Abstract. Inverse parameter estimation of process-based models is a long-standing problem in many scientific disciplines. A key question for inverse parameter estimation is how to define the metric that quantifies how well model predictions fit to the data. This metric can be expressed by general cost or objective functions, but statistical inversion methods require a particular metric, the probability of observing the data given the model parameters, known as the likelihood.

For technical and computational reasons, likelihoods for process-based stochastic models are usually based on general assumptions about variability in the observed data, and not on the stochasticity generated by the model. Only in recent years have new methods become available that allow the generation of likelihoods directly from stochastic simulations. Previous applications of these approximate Bayesian methods have concentrated on relatively simple models. Here, we report on the application of a simulation-based likelihood approximation for FORMIND, a parameter-rich individual-based model of tropical forest dynamics.

We show that approximate Bayesian inference, based on a parametric likelihood approximation placed in a conventional Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampler, performs well in retrieving known parameter values from virtual inventory data generated by the forest model. We analyze the results of the parameter estimation, examine its sensitivity to the choice and aggregation of model outputs and observed data (summary statistics), and demonstrate the application of this method by fitting the FORMIND model to field data from an Ecuadorian tropical forest. Finally, we discuss how this approach differs from approximate Bayesian computation (ABC), another method commonly used to generate simulation-based likelihood approximations.

Our results demonstrate that simulation-based inference, which offers considerable conceptual advantages over more traditional methods for inverse parameter estimation, can be successfully applied to process-based models of high complexity. The methodology is particularly suitable for heterogeneous and complex data structures and can easily be adjusted to other model types, including most stochastic population and individual-based models. Our study therefore provides a blueprint for a fairly general approach to parameter estimation of stochastic process-based models.

Final-revised paper