Thresholds, breakpoints, and nonlinearity in freshwaters as related to management.


Nonlinear ecological responses to anthropogenic forcing are common, and in some cases, the ecosystem responds by assuming a new stable state. This article is an overview and serves as the introduction to several articles in this BRIDGES cluster that are directed toward managers interested in dealing with nonlinear responses in freshwaters, particularly streams. A threshold or breakpoint occurs where the system responds rapidly to a relatively small change in a driver. The existence of a threshold can signal a change in system configuration to an alternative stable state, although such a change does not occur with all thresholds. In general, a mechanistic understanding of ecological dynamics is required to predict thresholds, where they will occur, and if they are associated with the occurrence of alternative stable states. Thresholds are difficult to predict, although a variety of univariate methods has been used to indicate thresholds in ecological data. When we applied several methods to one type of response variable, the resulting threshold values varied 3-fold, indicating that more research on detection methods is necessary. Numerous case studies suggest that the threshold concept is important in all ecosystems. Managers should be aware that human actions might result in undesirable rapid changes and potentially an unwanted alternative stable state, and that recovery from that state might require far more resources and time than avoiding entering the state in the first place would have required. Given the difficulties in predicting thresholds and alternative states, the precautionary approach to ecosystem management is probably the most prudent.



Threshold, Breakpoint, Management, Stable state