Machine learning for hydrologic sciences: An introductory overview

Tianfang Xu, Feng Liang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


The hydrologic community has experienced a surge in interest in machine learning in recent years. This interest is primarily driven by rapidly growing hydrologic data repositories, as well as success of machine learning in various academic and commercial applications, now possible due to increasing accessibility to enabling hardware and software. This overview is intended for readers new to the field of machine learning. It provides a non-technical introduction, placed within a historical context, to commonly used machine learning algorithms and deep learning architectures. Applications in hydrologic sciences are summarized next, with a focus on recent studies. They include the detection of patterns and events such as land use change, approximation of hydrologic variables and processes such as rainfall-runoff modeling, and mining relationships among variables for identifying controlling factors. The use of machine learning is also discussed in the context of integrated with process-based modeling for parameterization, surrogate modeling, and bias correction. Finally, the article highlights challenges of extrapolating robustness, physical interpretability, and small sample size in hydrologic applications. This article is categorized under: Science of Water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1533
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021


  • data-driven modeling
  • deep learning
  • hydrology
  • machine learning
  • process-based modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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