Empirical ground-motion models used in seismic hazard analysis are commonly derived by regression of observed ground motions against a chosen set of predictor variables. Commonly, the model building process is based on residual analysis and/or expert knowledge and/or opinion, while the quality of the model is assessed by the goodness-of-fit to the data. Such an approach, however, bears no immediate relation to the predictive power of the model and with increasing complexity of the models is increasingly susceptible to the danger of overfitting. Here, a different, primarily data-driven method for the development of ground-motion models is proposed that makes use of the notion of generalization error to counteract the problem of overfitting. Generalization error directly estimates the average prediction error on data not used for the model generation and, thus, is a good criterion to assess the predictive capabilities of a model. The approach taken here makes only few a priori assumptions. At first, peak ground acceleration and response spectrum values are modeled by flexible, nonphysical functions (polynomials) of the predictor variables. The inclusion of a particular predictor and the order of the polynomials are based on minimizing generalization error. The approach is illustrated for the next generation of ground-motion attenuation dataset. The resulting model is rather complex, comprising 48 parameters, but has considerably lower generalization error than functional forms commonly used in ground-motion models. The model parameters have no physical meaning, but a visual interpretation is possible and can reveal relevant characteristics of the data, for example, the Moho bounce in the distance scaling. In a second step, the regression model is approximated by an equivalent stochastic model, making it physically interpretable. The resulting resolvable stochastic model parameters are comparable to published models for western North America. In general, for large datasets generalization error minimization provides a viable method for the development of empirical ground-motion models.

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