Fundamental limitations of polynomial chaos for uncertainty quantification in systems with intermittent instabilities

Michal Branicki, A.J. Majda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Here, we examine the suitability of truncated Polynomial Chaos Expansions (PCE) and truncated Gram-Charlier Expansions (GrChE) as possible methods for uncertainty quantification (UQ) in nonlinear systems with intermittency and positive Lyapunov exponents. These two methods rely on truncated Galerkin projections of either the system variables in a fixed polynomial basis spanning the “uncertain” subspace (PCE) or a suitable eigenfunction expansion of the joint probability distribution associated with the uncertain evolution of the system (GrChE). Based on a simple, statistically exactly solvable non-linear and non-Gaussian test model, we show in detail that methods exploiting truncated spectral expansions, be it PCE or GrChE, have significant limitations for uncertainty quantification in systems with intermittent instabilities or parametric uncertainties in the damping. Intermittency and fat-tailed probability densities are hallmark features of the inertial and dissipation ranges of turbulence and we show that in such important dynamical regimes PCE performs, at best, similarly to the vastly simpler Gaussian moment closure technique utilized earlier by the authors in a different context for UQ within a framework of Empirical Information Theory. Moreover, we show that the non-realizability of the GrChE approximations is linked to the onset of intermittency in the dynamics and it is frequently accompanied by an erroneous blow-up of the second-order statistics at short times. These limitations of the two types of truncated spectral expansions arise from the following: (i) Non-uniform convergence in time of PCE and GrChE resulting in a rapidly increasing number of terms necessary for a good approximation of the random process as time evolves, (ii) Fundamental problems with capturing the constant flux of randomness due to white Gaussian noise forcing via finite truncations of the spectral representation of the associated Wiener process, (iii) Slow decay of PCE and GrChE coefficients in the presence of intermittency, hampering implementation of sparse truncation methods which have been widely used in nearly elliptic problems or in low Reynolds number ows. Rigorous justification of these limitations is richly illustrated by straightforward tests exploiting a simple nonlinear and non-Gaussian but statistically exactly solvable test model which is proposed here as a challenging benchmark for algorithms for UQ in systems with intermittency.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-103
JournalCommunications in Mathematical Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • polynomial chaos
  • uncertainty quantification
  • intermittency
  • white noise
  • parametric uncertainty

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