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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2018

Statistical models for evaluating suspected artefacts in long-term environmental monitoring data

von Bromssen, Claudia; Folster, Jens; Futter, Martyn; McEwan, Kerstin


Long-term water quality monitoring is of high value for environmental management as well as for research. Artificial level shifts in time series due to method improvements, flaws in laboratory practices or changes in laboratory are a common limitation for analysis, which, however, are often ignored. Statistical estimation of such artefacts is complicated by the simultaneous existence of trends, seasonal variation and effects of other influencing factors, such as weather conditions. Here, we investigate the performance of generalised additive mixed models (GAMM) to simultaneously identify one or more artefacts associated with artificial level shifts, longitudinal effects related to temporal trends and seasonal variation, as well as to model the serial correlation structure of the data. In the same model, it is possible to estimate separate residual variances for different periods so as to identify if artefacts not only influence the mean level but also the dispersion of a series. Even with an appropriate statistical methodology, it is difficult to quantify artificial level shifts and make appropriate adjustments to the time series. The underlying temporal structure of the series is especially important. As long as there is no prominent underlying trend in the series, the shift estimates are rather stable and show less variation. If an artificial shift occurs during a slower downward or upward tendency, it is difficult to separate these two effects and shift estimates can be both biased and have large variation. In the case of a change in method or laboratory, we show that conducting the analyses with both methods in parallel strongly improves estimates of artefact effects on the time series, even if certain problems remain. Due to the difficulties of estimating artificial level shifts, posterior adjustment is problematic and can lead to time series that no longer can be used for trend analysis or other analysis based on the longitudinal structure of the series. Before carrying out a change in analytic method or laboratory, it should be considered if this is absolutely necessary. If changes cannot be avoided, the analysis of the two methods considered, or the two laboratories contracted, should be run in parallel for a considerable period of time so as to enable a good assessment of changes introduced to the data series.


Level shift; Trend; Generalised additive mixed models; Method change

Published in

Environmental Monitoring and Assessment
2018, Volume: 190, number: 9, article number: 558
Publisher: SPRINGER