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Flickering gives early warning signals of a critical transition to a eutrophic lake state

Wang, Rong, Dearing, John A., Langdon, Peter G., Zhang, Enlou, Yang, Xiangdong, Dakos, Vasilis and Scheffer, Marten (2012) Flickering gives early warning signals of a critical transition to a eutrophic lake state Nature, 20 Dec 2012, (492), pp. 419-422. (doi:10.1038/nature11655). (PMID:23160492).

Record type: Article


There is a recognized need to anticipate tipping points, or critical transitions, in social-ecological systems. Studies of mathematical and experimental systems have shown that systems may 'wobble' before a critical transition. Such early warning signals may be due to the phenomenon of critical slowing down, which causes a system to recover slowly from small impacts, or to a flickering phenomenon, which causes a system to switch back and forth between alternative states in response to relatively large impacts. Such signals for transitions in social-ecological systems have rarely been observed, not the least because high-resolution time series are normally required. Here we combine empirical data from a lake-catchment system with a mathematical model and show that flickering can be detected from sparse data. We show how rising variance coupled to decreasing autocorrelation and skewness started 10-30 years before the transition to eutrophic lake conditions in both the empirical records and the model output, a finding that is consistent with flickering rather than critical slowing down. Our results suggest that if environmental regimes are sufficiently affected by large external impacts that flickering is induced, then early warning signals of transitions in modern social-ecological systems may be stronger, and hence easier to identify, than previously thought.

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Published date: 18 November 2012
Organisations: Geography & Environment


Local EPrints ID: 345379
ISSN: 0028-0836
PURE UUID: d7a2e140-1f0a-4f6d-b4e9-7a4497e7f71a
ORCID for John A. Dearing: ORCID iD
ORCID for Peter G. Langdon: ORCID iD

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Date deposited: 20 Nov 2012 16:25
Last modified: 18 Jul 2017 05:10

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Author: Rong Wang
Author: John A. Dearing ORCID iD
Author: Enlou Zhang
Author: Xiangdong Yang
Author: Vasilis Dakos
Author: Marten Scheffer

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