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Scripps scientists find potential for catastrophic shifts in Pacific ecosystems

e until this study. The biological shifts are more than random wiggles.

On the contrary, and to their surprise, the researchers found that some key physical characteristics of the North Pacific, such as sea surface temperature (which were suspected to show regimes), are not nonlinear. Rather, these physical characteristics evolve in a complicated but apparently linear manner, involving the sum of many variables. This finding means that suspected regime-like fluctuations in the North Pacific physical system are for all practical purposes wiggles that are best modeled by traditional statistical approaches. "The dynamics are the same during warm and cold periods, thus they are not true regimes," said Sugihara of the Physical Oceanography Research Division at Scripps. This is at least true for these data from the 20th century.

"Finding nonlinearity is fundamental for understanding and managing changes in ecosystems," said Lucas of the Biological Oceanography Curricular Group at Scripps. "In the North Pacific ecosystem, nonlinearity means that different sets of biological growth rules will apply in each different physical environment and that small, random physical changes can provoke an amplified response in the biology in ways that may not be easily or symmetrically reversed. These measurements show that asymmetrical and even irreversible ecological change is possible."

Irreversibility means that if the ecosystem changes dramatically due to, for example, an increase in temperature from global warming, it will not recover its previous condition simply through an equal but opposite change in temperature. That is, much like a financial market that takes much longer to recover than to crash, an ecosystem that is perturbed into an irreversible shift (e.g., by overfishing) may never be the same afterwards.

Finding linear dynamics in the physics and nonlinear dynamics in the biology in part reconciles an ongoing debate between some physical and
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Source:University of California - San Diego


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