Eluding catastrophic shifts

Villa Martín, Paula and Bonachela, Juan A. and Levin, Simon A. and Muñoz, Miguel A. (2015) Eluding catastrophic shifts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (15). E1828–E1836. ISSN 1091-6490 (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1414708112)

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Transitions between regimes with radically different properties are ubiquitous in nature. Such transitions can occur either smoothly or in an abrupt and catastrophic fashion. Important examples of the latter can be found in ecology, climate sciences, and economics, to name a few, where regime shifts have catastrophic consequences that are mostly irreversible (e.g., desertification, coral reef collapses, and market crashes). Predicting and preventing these abrupt transitions remains a challenging and important task. Usually, simple deterministic equations are used to model and rationalize these complex situations. However, stochastic effects might have a profound effect. Here we use 1D and 2D spatially explicit models to show that intrinsic (demographic) stochasticity can alter deterministic predictions dramatically, especially in the presence of other realistic features such as limited mobility or spatial heterogeneity. In particular, these ingredients can alter the possibility of catastrophic shifts by giving rise to much smoother and easily reversible continuous ones. The ideas presented here can help further understand catastrophic shifts and contribute to the discussion about the possibility of preventing such shifts to minimize their disruptive ecological, economic, and societal consequences.