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©Johan van de Koppel / Ulco Glimmerveen

Research project into environmental tipping points receives €10 million

Arjen Doelman (Leiden University), Max Rietkerk (Utrecht University), Ehud Meron (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) and Isla Myers-Smith (University of Edinburgh) received an ERC Synergy grant of 10 million euros with their RESILIENCE project. The researchers will investigate whether and how tipping points in ecosystems can be prevented or evaded by spatial processes and the formation of spatial patterns.

Tipping points occur when damage to ecosystems crosses a threshold so dramatic that irreversible change takes place. Damage that is often a consequence of human impacts on the planet. Tipping points are known to be a great concern in the fight against climate change. On a large scale, they can cause savannahs to flip over to deserts and tundra can change to forests, resulting in even more climate change.

More resilient than previously thought

Earlier research published in Science showed that the tendency of stressed ecosystems to form spatial patterns, such as vegetation patterns, can increase the capacity of ecosystems to resist tipping. These patterns may even help ecosystems recover from damage. Rietkerk: 'We will take the concept of tipping back to the drawing table and investigate when this concept breaks down and needs to be replaced by the theory of spatial pattern formation.'

The synergy of different expertises in our team will allow us to identify novel directions to evade tipping

Circumventing tipping points altogether

The theory proposed by the RESILIENCE team now suggests that tipping points may be prevented and circumvented by spatial patterning and its feedback with other ecological processes. That would mean ecosystems are much more resilient than previously thought. Meyer-Smith: 'Tundra ecosystems are full of spatial patterns. Stripes, circles and hexagons can be found across all different types of tundra landscapes. Whether these patterns confer resilience to climate change or not is an open question and one we aim to test.'

Understanding the fundamentals

The multidisciplinary team, with researchers from Utrecht, Leiden, Be’er Sheval, and Edinburgh, will study pathways of resilience and ways of human intervention to evade these ‘points of no return’. Doelman: 'With this project, we aim for discovering and constructing fundamental mechanisms that may give complex ecosystems the flexibility to respond to climate change without collapsing in a catastrophic way.'

High-speed versus gradual change

'We will, for example, investigate the speed at which external factors such as yearly rainfall or average temperature change,' Doelman continues. 'Simulations show that when these factors change relatively quickly transitions could happen within ecosystems that would not have happened if the change had been more gradual. But how this works is yet to be fully understood.'

Collaboration is key

The researchers will address this challenge by combining disciplines like ecology, physics, mathematics, computing and data science. Meron: 'The high complexity of spatially extended ecosystems, reflected in part by their hierarchy of organisational levels, has hampered attempts to disentangle ecosystem response to climate change. The synergy of different expertises in our team will allow us to take advantage of that complexity and identify novel directions to evade tipping.' The research will start in the spring of 2023 and will last for six years.

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