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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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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Anthony D. Barnosky
    • , Charles Marshall
    •  & Nicholas Matzke
  2. Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Anthony D. Barnosky
    •  & Charles Marshall
  3. Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Anthony D. Barnosky
  4. Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Elizabeth A. Hadly
  5. Integrative Ecology Group, Estación Biológica de Doñana, CSIC, Calle Américo Vespucio s/n, E-41092 Sevilla, Spain

    • Jordi Bascompte
  6. TRU NORTH Labs, Berkeley, California 94705, USA

    • Eric L. Berlow
  7. Department of Biology, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131, USA

    • James H. Brown
  8. Department of Geosciences and Geography and Finnish Museum of Natural History, PO Box 64, University of Helsinki, FI-00014 Helsinki, Finland

    • Mikael Fortelius
  9. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Wayne M. Getz
    • , John Harte
    • , Rosemary Gillespie
    •  & Justin Kitzes
  10. Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • John Harte
  11. Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • Alan Hastings
  12. Departamento de Ecología, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Alameda 340, Santiago, Chile

    • Pablo A. Marquet
  13. Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile

    • Pablo A. Marquet
  14. The Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501, USA

    • Pablo A. Marquet
  15. Facultad de Ciencias Biologicas, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Alameda 340, Santiago, Chile

    • Pablo A. Marquet
  16. Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab, 1604 McGee Avenue, Berkeley, California 94703, USA

    • Neo D. Martinez
  17. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

    • Arne Mooers
  18. California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, California 94118, USA

    • Peter Roopnarine
  19. Department of Geology, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • Geerat Vermeij
  20. Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

    • John W. Williams
  21. Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco, California 94102, USA

    • David P. Mindell
  22. Department of Conservation Biology, Estación Biológica de Doñana, CSIC, Calle Américo Vespucio s/n, E-41092 Sevilla, Spain

    • Eloy Revilla
  23. Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, Saint Louis, Missouri 63110, USA

    • Adam B. Smith

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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anthony D. Barnosky.

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