Formalising interactions between environmental models

Supervision: Dr. Derek Karssenberg (, Drs Oliver Schmitz (, Drs Kor de Jong (

Environmental modelling tools are today an important tool to construct spatio-temporal models. They outperform system programming languages as a model development environment regarding programming errors and implementation time and are therefore suitable for domain specialists like hydrologists, climatologists or ecologists. Nevertheless, these tools have mostly focused on the syntax of modelling languages ignoring the semantic aspect of models, i.e. the meaning of the inputs, functions and outputs of a component model. Without a formal definition of the semantics of model components it is almost impossible to provide generic principles for coupling component models.

The coupling of specialized component models is certainly a requirement for the construction of integrated models, as these represent a more holistic view on environmental processes. Therefore, the development of a formal definition of model components is required. A formal approach are ontologies, which describe a conceptual domain, usually consisting of a set of statements that define concepts and relationships between concepts. While first steps towards ontologies for environmental models exist (e.g. Williams, M et al 2009, Lake, al 2004) most of these approaches do not provide a complete description of all aspects of inputs and outputs. Research on the development of an ontology describing the whole domain of spatio-temporal models, including various modelling paradigms, spatial domains, and application domains is still required.

The research will be incorporated in an ongoing research project of integrated model development. Several research questions that are appropriate for a MSc thesis are available:
  • What is the current state of formal descriptions of model inputs and ouputs, what are limitations and potentials of those approaches
  • Development (design and implementation) of or extension of an exisiting ontology suitable for coupling spatio-temporal model components
  • Development (design and implementation) of a user interface for creating and modifying ontology descriptions by model developer
  • Evaluating the possibillities of auto-generating ontology descriptions for existing models by software applications
  • Assessing conversion problems of environmental variables occurring in the coupling of model components including different temporal and spatial resolutions, units, coverage, …
  • Own proposals are welcome

Location: Utrecht University

Period: to be determined

Number of students: 1-2

Program/track: Earth Surface and Water: Hydrology or Coastal dynamics and fluvial systems, or Geohazards and Earth observation

Prerequisites: courses in spatio-temporal modelling, geostatistics, remote sensing, hydrology, geomorphology, and/or natural hazards (content of project can be adjusted to your background)

Contact/info: Derek Karssenberg (