Understanding the critical rate of environmental change for ecosystems, cyanobacteria as an example

Bolt, Bregje van der; Nes, Egbert H. van


Recently it has been show that in some ecosystems fast rates of change of environmental drivers may trigger a critical transition, whereas change of the same magnitude but at slower rates would not. So far, few studies describe this phenomenon of rate-induced tipping, while it is important to understand this phenomenon in the light of the ongoing rapid environmental change. Here, we demonstrate rate-induced tipping in a simple model of cyanobacteria with realistic parameter settings. We explain graphically that there is a range of initial conditions at which a gradual increase in environmental conditions can cause a collapse of the population, but only if the change is fast enough. In addition, we show that a pulse in the environmental conditions can cause a temporary collapse, but that is dependent on both the rate and the duration of the pulse. Furthermore, we study whether the autocorrelation of stochastic environmental conditions can influence the probability of inducing rate-tipping. As both the rate of environmental change, and autocorrelation of the environmental variability are increasing in parts of the climate, the probability for rate-induced tipping to occur is likely to increase. Our results imply that, even though the identification of rate sensitive ecosystems in the real world will be challenging, we should incorporate critical rates of change in our ecosystem assessments and management.