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Ecological Instability in Lakes: A Predictable Condition?

Spears, Bryan M.; Futter, Martyn; Huser, Brian; Angeler, David; Jeppesen, Erik


Society is threatened with an increased likelihood of unexpected and rapid loss of natural capital, increased public health risk from toxic cyanobacteria, and loss of biodiversity in lakes. Observations and models reveal that lakes can exhibit sudden, but persistent, ecological changes preceded by the erosion of ecological stability (e.g., phenomenon of “flickering” or “critical slowing down”(1)) driven by extrinsic (e.g., extreme weather events) or intrinsic (e.g., trophic interactions) pressures. This evidence is being used to develop the basis for resilience based management across other ecosystem types. However, although slow (i.e., years to centuries), ecological responses following abatement of dominant pressures are well documented (e.g., catchment nutrient load reduction(2)), the same cannot be said for sudden ecological transitions (i.e., <1 year duration). This leads to a lack of confidence in predicting such events and an inability to prevent them. This is challenging given the practical need for early detection of ecological instability required to support effective preventative management. Recent advances across three fields of freshwater ecology offer opportunities to address this issue. These include (1) detecting critical pressure thresholds using data from large populations of lakes; (2) examining the causes, forms and rates of change during past events using long-term contemporary and palaeolimnological data, and (3) using high-frequency monitoring to predict sudden transitions using statistical analogues of ecosystem stability. We offer recommendations for their use in diagnosing ecological instability in lakes.

Published in

Environmental Science and Technology
2016, Volume: 50, number: 7, pages: 3285-3286