Whether intentional or not, human activity is altering Earth's ecosystems so much that researchers argue that we have moved into a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans.
While some ecological changes have been gradual, others have been more sudden, large and persistent – fundamentally altering the production of ecosystem services – the services an ecosystem provides to societies for example water purification, fertile soils or bee pollination. These types of surprising, large and persistent changes in the function and structure of ecosystems are referred to as regime shifts.
Examples include coral bleaching, the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fisheries in the 1990s or when fertilisers leach into lakes thriving with life causing them to switch to a new state with less diversity and dominated by algal blooms.
Whether continued global change will lead to further regime shifts or even trigger a cascade of regime shifts is a key questions in international policy. However, it has been difficult to study if and how regime shifts are connected, and most research until now has rather focused on specific cases.
One database to find them all
In a recent study published in PlosONE centre researchers Juan-Carlos Rocha, Garry Peterson and Oonsie Biggs compared 25 different types of regime shifts from marine, terrestrial and polar ecosystems using the Regime Shifts Database.
The database, which contains 200 examples of regime shifts from around the world, allowed the authors to identify the drivers of the regime shifts and their impact on ecosystem services.
"The Regime Shifts Database currently synthesises over 800 scientific publications, presenting more than 200 cases of 25 kinds of regime shifts"
Juan-Carlos Rocha, co-founder of Regime Shifts Database
Rocha and his colleagues wanted to be able to understand what the main drivers of regime shifts are on a global level, and how the shifts are affecting the production of ecosystem services. The database makes it possible to analyse commonalities and larger patterns than before his type of data was available.
One shift, two shifts, three shifts, four…
The results of the study show that the drivers of regime shifts are many and diverse. They also often occur together, and synergistically drive change. This suggests that continued global change can be expected to increase the risk of multiple regime shifts.
It also means that reducing the risk of regime shifts requires a holistic approach to management, with integrated action across dimensions and scales.
"Since the drivers of regime shifts are many and diverse and also often occur together it becomes clear that even a heroic action such as halting climate change on its own may not be enough to avoid most regime shifts," says Peterson.
Two key sets of drivers that affect many potential regime shifts, are highly intertwined with each other and are expected to increase in the coming decades are climate change and food production. These drivers have the potential to simultaneously cause regime shifts in different systems, and also to cause a cascade of regime shifts where on shift triggers the next.
Reducing drivers on a local scale, for example by managing fisheries to maintain healthy marine environments in food production, can help build resilience to global change and can also have a dampening effect on global drivers such as climate change through changes in global markets. In this way there is potential to reduce risk through local and national management efforts.
But in the long run unless the rates of global changes are slowed down or reversed they will eventually overwhelm management attempts on the local level.
"Using the Regime Shifts Database to gather and extract data has allowed us to compare different types of regime shifts, and has broadened our understanding of them. It has also made it possible for us to draw on this new knowledge and translate the patterns we can observe into insights that are valuable for ecosystem management," concludes Rocha.
"Achieving a sustainable future will require meeting the needs for ecosystem services, meaning that we have to avoid regime shifts that threaten the production of these services. This will require management of connected and co-occuring drivers on local to global scales."
Reference: Rocha, J.-C., G. D. Peterson, R. Biggs. 2015. Regime shifts in the Anthropocene: drivers, risks, and resilience. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134639. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134639
Juan-Carlos Rocha's research focus is on the main drivers of regime shifts globally. He uses the regime shift database and network analysis to study the co-occurrence patters of regime shifts and drivers.
Garry Peterson is Professor in Environmental Sciences with key focus on resilience in social-ecological systems. His research looks at ways to improve people's ability to ensure a reliable supply of the ecosystem services that support human well-being.
Oonsie Biggs' research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies.
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