Uncertainty and sensitivity in a bank stability model: implications for estimating phosphorus loading

Roderick W. Lammers, Brian P. Bledsoe, Eddy J. Langendoen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems is one of the most pressing water quality concerns in the United States and around the world. Bank erosion has been largely overlooked as a source of nutrient loading, despite field studies demonstrating that this source can account for the majority of the total phosphorus load in a watershed. Substantial effort has been made to develop mechanistic models to predict bank erosion and instability in stream systems; however, these models do not account for inherent natural variability in input values. To quantify the impacts of this omission, uncertainty and sensitivity analyses were performed on the Bank Stability and Toe Erosion Model (BSTEM), a mechanistic model developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) that simulates both mass wasting and fluvial erosion of streambanks. Generally, bank height, soil cohesion, and plant species were found to be most influential in determining stability of clay (cohesive) banks. In addition to these three inputs, groundwater elevation, stream stage, and bank angle were also identified as important in sand (non-cohesive) banks. Slope and bank height are the dominant variables in fluvial erosion modeling, while erodibility and critical shear stress had low sensitivity indices; however, these indices do not reflect the importance of critical shear stress in determining the timing of erosion events. These results identify important variables that should be the focus of data collection efforts while also indicating which less influential variables may be set to assumed values. In addition, a probabilistic Monte-Carlo modeling approach was applied to data from a watershed-scale sediment and phosphorus loading study on the Missisquoi River, Vermont to quantify uncertainty associated with these published results. While our estimates aligned well with previous deterministic modeling results, the uncertainty associated with these predictions suggests that they should be considered order of magnitude estimates only.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)612-623
Number of pages12
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 30 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • bank erosion
  • phosphorus
  • sensitivity
  • uncertainty


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