Monitoring for tipping points in the marine environment
Increasingly studies are reporting sudden and dramatic changes in the structure and function of communities or ecosystems. The prevalence of these reports demonstrates the importance for management of being able to detect whether these have happened and, preferably, whether they are likely to occur. Ecological theory provides the rationale for why such changes occur and a variety of statistical indicators of approach that have generic properties have been developed. However, whether the theory has successfully translated into monitoring programmes is unknown. We searched the literature for guidelines that would drive design of monitoring programmes able to detect past and approaching tipping points and analysed marine monitoring programmes in New Zealand. We found very few guidelines in the ecological, environmental or monitoring literature, although both simulation and marine empirical studies suggest that within-year sampling increases the likelihood of detecting approaching tipping points. The combination of the need to monitor both small and medium scale temporal dynamics of multiple variables to detect tipping points meant that few marine monitoring programmes in New Zealand were fit for that purpose. Interestingly, we found many marine examples of studies detecting past and approaching TP with fewer data than was common in the theoretical literature. We, therefore, suggest that utilizing ecological knowledge is of paramount importance in designing and analyzing time-series monitoring for tipping points and increasing the certainty for short-term or infrequent datasets of whether a tipping point has occurred. As monitoring plays an important role in management of tipping points by providing supporting information for other locations about when and why a tipping point may occur, we believe that monitoring for tipping points should be promoted.
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