Hierarchical off-diagonal low-rank approximation of Hessians in inverse problems, with application to ice sheet model initialization

Tucker Hartland, Georg Stadler, Mauro Perego, Kim Liegeois, Noémi Petra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Obtaining lightweight and accurate approximations of discretized objective functional Hessians in inverse problems governed by partial differential equations (PDEs) is essential to make both deterministic and Bayesian statistical large-scale inverse problems computationally tractable. The cubic computational complexity of dense linear algebraic tasks, such as Cholesky factorization, that provide a means to sample Gaussian distributions and determine solutions of Newton linear systems is a computational bottleneck at large-scale. These tasks can be reduced to log-linear complexity by utilizing hierarchical off-diagonal low-rank (HODLR) matrix approximations. In this work, we show that a class of Hessians that arise from inverse problems governed by PDEs are well approximated by the HODLR matrix format. In particular, we study inverse problems governed by PDEs that model the instantaneous viscous flow of ice sheets. In these problems, we seek a spatially distributed basal sliding parameter field such that the flow predicted by the ice sheet model is consistent with ice sheet surface velocity observations. We demonstrate the use of HODLR Hessian approximation to efficiently sample the Laplace approximation of the posterior distribution with covariance further approximated by HODLR matrix compression. Computational studies are performed which illustrate ice sheet problem regimes for which the Gauss-Newton data-misfit Hessian is more efficiently approximated by the HODLR matrix format than the low-rank (LR) format. We then demonstrate that HODLR approximations can be favorable, when compared to global LR approximations, for large-scale problems by studying the data-misfit Hessian associated with inverse problems governed by the first-order Stokes flow model on the Humboldt glacier and Greenland ice sheet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number085006
JournalInverse Problems
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2023


  • Hessians
  • hierarchical matrices
  • HODLR matrices
  • ice-sheet models
  • inverse problems
  • large-scale

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Signal Processing
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Applied Mathematics


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