13.5 Stiff ODEs

A stiff system of ordinary differential equations can be roughly characterized as systems presenting numerical difficulties for gradient-based stepwise solvers. Stiffness typically arises due to varying curvature in the dimensions of the state, for instance one component evolving orders of magnitude more slowly than another.24

Stan provides a specialized solver for stiff ODEs (Cohen and Hindmarsh 1996; Serban and Hindmarsh 2005). An ODE system is specified exactly the same way with a function of exactly the same signature. The only difference is in the call to the integrator for the solution; the rk45 suffix is replaced with bdf, as in

y_hat = integrate_ode_bdf(sho, y0, t0, ts, theta, x_r, x_i);

Using the stiff (bdf) integrator on a system that is not stiff may be much slower than using the non-stiff (rk45) integrator; this is because it computes additional Jacobians to guide the integrator. On the other hand, attempting to use the non-stiff integrator for a stiff system will fail due to requiring a small step size and too many steps.


Cohen, Scott D, and Alan C Hindmarsh. 1996. “CVODE, a Stiff/Nonstiff ODE Solver in C.” Computers in Physics 10 (2): 138–43.

Serban, Radu, and Alan C Hindmarsh. 2005. “CVODES: The Sensitivity-Enabled ODE Solver in SUNDIALS.” In ASME 2005 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference, 257–69. American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

  1. Not coincidentally, high curvature in the posterior of a general Stan model poses the same kind of problem for Euclidean Hamiltonian Monte Carlo (HMC) sampling. The reason is that HMC is based on the leapfrog algorithm, a gradient-based, stepwise numerical differential equation solver specialized for Hamiltonian systems with separable potential and kinetic energy terms.