Embracing thresholds for better environmental management
Three decades of study have revealed dozens of examples in which natural systems have crossed biophysical thresholds (‘tipping points’)—nonlinear changes in ecosystem structure and function—as a result of human-induced stressors, dramatically altering ecosystem function and services. Environmental management that avoids such thresholds could prevent severe social, economic and environmental impacts. Here, we review management measures implemented in ecological systems that have thresholds. Using Ostrom's social–ecological systems framework, we analysed key biophysical and institutional factors associated with 51 social–ecological systems and associated management regimes, and related these to management success defined by ecological outcomes. We categorized cases as instances of prospective or retrospective management, based upon whether management aimed to avoid a threshold or to restore systems that have crossed a threshold. We find that smaller systems are more amenable to threshold-based management, that routine monitoring is associated with successful avoidance of thresholds and recovery after thresholds have been crossed, and that success is associated with the explicit threshold-based management. These findings are powerful evidence for the policy relevance of information on ecological thresholds across a wide range of ecosystems.