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Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere

Abstract

Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

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Figure 1: Drivers of a potential planetary-scale critical transition.
Figure 2: Quantifying land use as one method of anticipating a planetary state shift.

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Acknowledgements

This research grew out of a workshop funded by The University of California at Berkeley Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research under the auspices of the Berkeley Initiative for Global Change Biology. We thank J. Jackson for discussions and Paul Ehrlich for comments.

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Contributions

All authors participated in the workshop and discussions that resulted in this paper, and provided key insights from their respective research specialties. A.D.B. and E.A.H. were the lead writers and synthesizers. J.B., E.L.B., J.H.B., M.F., W.M.G., J.H., A.H., A.M., P.A.M, N.D.M., P.R., G.V. and J.W.W. compiled data and/or figures and wrote parts of the text. R.G., J.K., C.M., N.M., D.P.M., E.R. and A.B.S. contributed to finalizing the text.

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Correspondence to Anthony D. Barnosky.

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Barnosky, A., Hadly, E., Bascompte, J. et al. Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486, 52–58 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11018

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