Avoiding regime shifts is difficult

Conservation magazine’s Journal Watch Online returns from a long hiatus to report on an interesting new paper on the problems of detecting regime shifts by resilience researchers Oonsie Biggs, Steve Carpenter, and W.A. “Buz” Brock (2009. Turning back from the brink: Detecting an impending regime shift in time to avert it. PNAS DOI 10.1073/pnas.0811729106).  They write:

Like the stock market, ecosystems can dramatically collapse. But how much advance notice is needed to prevent a natural system meltdown? A paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the answer might be several decades, which means today’s warning systems don’t detect changes nearly far enough in advance.

Using Northern Wisconsin’s sport fishery as a model, University of Wisconsin researchers determined when an ecosystem reaches the brink of an unstoppable shift, then estimated when recovery efforts must start in order to avert collapse. They found that some rapid actions only need short timetables; angling cuts can prevent permanent damage to fisheries even if they’ve been declining for ten years. But other changes, like restoring habitat after too much shoreline development, must start as many as 45 years before ecological health indicators start wobbling.

The problem is, most indicators in today’s early-warning systems can’t detect serious shifts that far out. Even if they could, it might still take policymakers years to enact recovery schemes. Which leads the authors to plea for indicators that work on a longer horizon, and for policy makers to move swiftly once scientists buy them some time.

2 thoughts on “Avoiding regime shifts is difficult”

  1. Detecting regime shifts in time to implement remedial action is desirable other wise you wake up one morning and find out that it’s too late for action. Has there been some good practice work done in the developing countries and more specifically sub saharan area?

    The reports i have read so far on systems approach to ecosystems management have talked about the need for whole systems consciousness and yet when it comes to practices, i seem to see people reverting to the traditional sub sector projects. For example, i have read about good systems management project dealing with water alone or fisheries alone or forestry alone. Are there some good practice experiences who are integrating disciplines and sub-ecosystems?

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