Hydrogeological conceptual model building and testing: A review

Trine Enemark, Luk Peeters, Mallants Dirk, Okke Batelaan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Citations (Scopus)


Hydrogeological conceptual models are collections of hypotheses describing the understanding of groundwater systems and they are considered one of the major sources of uncertainty in groundwater flow and transport modelling. A common method for characterizing the conceptual uncertainty is the multi-model approach, where alternative plausible conceptual models are developed and evaluated. This review aims to give an overview of how multiple alternative models have been developed, tested and used for predictions in the multi-model approach in international literature and to identify the remaining challenges. The review shows that only a few guidelines for developing the multiple conceptual models exist, and these are rarely followed. The challenge of generating a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive range of plausible models is yet to be solved. Regarding conceptual model testing, the reviewed studies show that a challenge remains in finding data that is both suitable to discriminate between conceptual models and relevant to the model objective. We argue that there is a need for a systematic approach to conceptual model building where all aspects of conceptualization relevant to the study objective are covered. For each conceptual issue identified, alternative models representing hypotheses that are mutually exclusive should be defined. Using a systematic, hypothesis based approach increases the transparency in the modelling workflow and therefore the confidence in the final model predictions, while also anticipating conceptual surprises. While the focus of this review is on hydrogeological applications, the concepts and challenges concerning model building and testing are applicable to spatio-temporal dynamical environmental systems models in general.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)310-329
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


  • Conceptual models
  • Model evaluation
  • Model rejection
  • Multi-model framework
  • Conceptual model uncertainty


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