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Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems


All ecosystems are exposed to gradual changes in climate, nutrient loading, habitat fragmentation or biotic exploitation. Nature is usually assumed to respond to gradual change in a smooth way. However, studies on lakes, coral reefs, oceans, forests and arid lands have shown that smooth change can be interrupted by sudden drastic switches to a contrasting state. Although diverse events can trigger such shifts, recent studies show that a loss of resilience usually paves the way for a switch to an alternative state. This suggests that strategies for sustainable management of such ecosystems should focus on maintaining resilience.

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Figure 1: Possible ways in which ecosystem equilibrium states can vary with conditions such as nutrient loading, exploitation or temperature rise.
Figure 2: Two ways to shift between alternative stable states.
Figure 3: External conditions affect the resilience of multi-stable ecosystems to perturbation.
Figure 4: Hysteresis in the response of charophyte vegetation in the shallow Lake Veluwe to increase and subsequent decrease of the phosphorus concentration.
Figure 5: A graphical model60 of alternative stable states in shallow lakes on the basis of three assumptions: (1) turbidity of the water increases with the nutrient level; (2) submerged vegetation reduces turbidity; and (3) vegetation disappears when a critical turbidity is exceeded.
Figure 6: Over the past 9,000 years, average Northern Hemisphere summer insolation (upper panel) has varied gradually owing to subtle variation in the Earth's orbit.
Figure 7: Distinct state shifts occurred in the Pacific Ocean ecosystem around 1977 and 1989.


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We thank P. Yodzis for his help in improving the clarity of the manuscript. B. Holling played a key role over the past years in stimulating our discussions around the theme of resilience.

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Correspondence to Marten Scheffer.

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Scheffer, M., Carpenter, S., Foley, J. et al. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413, 591–596 (2001).

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