Researchers eavesdropping on complex signals from a remote Wisconsin lake have detected what they say is an unmistakable warning--a death knell--of the impending collapse of the lake's aquatic ecosystem.
The finding, reported today in the journal Science by a team of researchers led by Stephen Carpenter, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), is the first experimental evidence that radical change in an ecosystem can be detected in advance, possibly in time to prevent ecological catastrophe.
"For a long time, ecologists thought these changes couldn't be predicted," says Carpenter. "But we've now shown that they can be foreseen. The early warning is clear. It is a strong signal."
The implications of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported study are big, says Carpenter.
"This research shows that, with careful monitoring, we can foresee shifts in the structure of ecosystems despite their complexity," agrees Alan Tessier, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology. "The results point the way for ecosystem management to become a predictive science."
The findings suggest that, with the right kind of monitoring, it may be possible to track the vital signs of any ecosystem and intervene in time to prevent what is often irreversible damage to the environment.
"With more work, this could revolutionize ecosystem management," Carpenter says. "The concept has now been validated in a field experiment and the fact that it worked in this lake opens the door to testing it in rangelands, forests and marine ecosystems."
"Networks for long-term ecological observation, such as the [NSF] Long-Term Ecological Research network, increase the possibility of detecting early warnings through comparisons across sites and among regions," the scientists write in their paper.
Ecosystems often change in radical ways. Lakes, forests, rangelands, coral reefs and many other e
|Contact: Cheryl Dybas|
National Science Foundation