Many ecosystems can experience regime shifts: surprising, large and persistent changes in the function and structure of ecosystems. Assessing whether continued global change will lead to further regime shifts, or has the potential to trigger cascading regime shifts has been a central question in global change policy. Addressing this issue has, however, been hampered by the focus of regime shift research on specific cases and types of regime shifts.
To systematically assess the global risk of regime shifts we conducted a comparative analysis of 25 generic types of regime shifts across marine, terrestrial and polar systems; identifying their drivers, and impacts on ecosystem services. Our results show that the drivers of regime shifts are diverse and co-occur strongly, which suggests that continued global change can be expected to synchronously increase the risk of multiple regime shifts.
Furthermore, many regime shift drivers are related to climate change and food production, whose links to the continued expansion of human activities makes them difficult to limit. Because many regime shifts can amplify the drivers of other regime shifts, continued global change can also be expected to increase the risk of cascading regime shifts. Nevertheless, the variety of scales at which regime shift drivers operate provides opportunities for reducing the risk of many types of regime shifts by addressing local or regional drivers, even in the absence of rapid reduction of global drivers.
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