The recent paper by Marten Scheffer and other resilience researchers paper Early Warning Signals for Critical Transitions (doi:10.1038/nature08227) has been reported in a number of places including Time, USA Today, and Wired. While many newspapers just reprint the press release, several articles add something.
A USA Today article Predicting tipping points before they occur quotes Brian Walker:
“This is a very important paper,” says Brian Walker, a fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Center at the University of Stockholm in Sweden.
“The big question they’re trying to answer is, how the hell do you know when it’s coming? Is there any way you can get an inkling of a looming threshold, something that might be a warning signal that you’re getting to one of the crucial transition points?”
Wired magazine article Scientists Seek Warning Signs for Catastrophic Tipping Points quotes several sceptical scientists:
“It’d be very nice if it were true that there were precursors for tipping points in all these diverse systems. It’d be even nicer if we could find these precursors. I want to believe it, but I’m not sure I do,” said Steven Strogatz, a Cornell University biomathematician who was not involved in the paper.
The difficulty of early detection is especially pronounced with markets. Computer models can replicate their bubble-and-crash behavior, but real markets — buffeted by political and social trends, and inevitably responding to the very act of prediction — are much cloudier.
“It is hard to find clear evidence of bifurcations and transitions, let alone find an early warning system to detect an upcoming crash,” said Cars Homme, an economic theorist at the University of Amsterdam.
The most promising evidence of useful early warning signs comes from grasslands, coral reefs and lakes. Vegetation-pattern-based early warning signs have been documented in several regions, and transition theory is already being used to guide land use in parts of Australia.
The U.S. Geological Survey is currently hunting through satellite imagery for signals of impending desertification at two sites in the Southwest. They’ve studied desertification there by painstakingly measuring local conditions and experimentally setting fires, removing grasses and controlling the fall of water. But so far, the vegetation patterns that indicated tipping points in the Kalahari haven’t shown up here, though this may be due to poor image quality rather than bad theory. The researchers are now looking for signals in on-the-ground measurements of vegetation changes.
“These things aren’t going to be foolproof. There will be false positives and false negatives, and people need to be aware of that,” said Carpenter. “There’s still a great deal of basic research going on to understand the indicators better. We’re still in the early days. But why not try? The alternative is to get repeatedly blindsided. The alternative is not appealing.”
So, how do we know that change is at hand? The Nature researchers noticed one potential signal: the sudden variance between two distinct states within one system, known by the less technical term squealing. In an ecological system like a forest, for example, squealing might look like an alternation between two stable states — barren versus fertile — before a drought takes its final toll on the woodland and transforms it into a desert, at which point even monsoons won’t bring the field back to life. Fish populations seem to collapse suddenly as well — overfishing causes fluctuations in fish stocks until it passes a threshold, at which point there are simply too few fish left to bring back the population, even if fishing completely ceases. And even in financial markets, sudden collapses tend to be preceded by heightened trading volatility — a good sign to pull your money out of the market. “Heart attacks, algae blooms in lakes, epileptic attacks — every one shows this type of change,” says Carpenter. “It’s remarkable.”
In climate terms, squealing may involve increased variability of the weather — sudden shifts from hot temperatures to colder ones and back again. General instability ensues and, at some point, the center ceases to hold. “Before we reached a climate tipping point we’d expect to see lots of record heat and record cold,” says Carpenter. “Every example of sudden climate change we’ve seen in the historical record was preceded by this sort of squealing.”
The hard part will be putting this new knowledge into action. It’s true that we have a sense of where some of the tipping points for climate change might lie — the loss of Arctic sea ice, or the release of methane from the melting permafrost of Siberia. But that knowledge is still incomplete, even as the world comes together to try, finally, to address the threat collectively. “Managing the environment is like driving a foggy road at night by a cliff,” says Carpenter. “You know it’s there, but you don’t know where exactly.” The warning signs give us an idea of where that cliff might be — but we’ll need to pay attention.