The aim of the CASCADE project is to obtain a better understanding of sudden ecosystem shifts that may lead to major losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and to define measures that can be used to prevent such shifts.

CASCADE will improve our understanding of the biogeochemical mechanisms underlying sudden and catastrophic shifts, and of the key biotic and abiotic factors influencing these processes. Based on these analyses, CASCADE will develop ways to predict the proximity of the CASCADE’s dryland ecosystems to thresholds in such a way that these predictions can be used by policymakers and land users for more sustainable management of drylands worldwide.


CASCADE will improve the understanding of the biogeochemical mechanisms underlying sudden and catastrophic shifts by carrying out a series of experiments that will provide new knowledge on mechanisms and drivers behind sudden shifts in dryland ecosystems. The experiments will include studies on field microcosm, field mesocosm and landscape scales.

CASCADE will develop new models accounting for multiple pressures on vegetation dynamics and threshold behaviour. These models are also new because they include different plant species that may differ with respect to their response to a range of abiotic factors.

The CASCADE approach will develop a participatory approach that will serve as the basis of the sustainable management of the ecosystems, the biodiversity within these ecosystems, and the services provided by the ecosystems. Such detailed, integrated modeling and participatory evaluation of dryland degradation and its causes and solutions have not been undertaken for European dryland regions yet.

The CASCADE project is relevant in economic and social respects, because it will come up with effective strategies to predict and prevent critical transition in dryland ecosystems, that otherwise might have severe negative consequences for the service level of ecosystem services in these areas. Considering the deteriorating economic situation in the EU combined with the expected negative impacts of climate change on the agricultural productivity of the Mediterranean countries, recommendations for the control and management of ecosystems is indispensable.

CASCADE will develop a new indicator system comprising detectable features of ecosystems that indicate the proximity to thresholds, and that can be adequately used for ecosystem management. These indicators will be linked to associated resources and human activities that can be controlled or at least influenced towards sustainable management. The strategies, indicator system and the participatory approach for natural resource management developed in the CASCADE project will be of direct benefit for natural resource managers in dryland areas, and will provide targeted information, guidance and recommendation for related policy makers.

Timeline approach

CASCADE will investigate a range of dryland ecosystems in southern Europe to study a range of physical and socio-economical drivers. This is done by performing research in 6 study sites in the Mediterranean region, ranging from Portugal to Cyprus.

The CASCADE project has 9 work packages:

  • WP 1 Project coordination and project management
  • WP 2 Historical evolution and current state of Mediterranean dryland ecosystems
  • WP 3 Field microplot experiments to unravel regulating processes
  • WP 4 Manipulative field mesocosm experiments on ecosystems dynamics
  • WP 5 Landscape assessments on thresholds dynamics
  • WP 6 Development and application of integrated soil-water-plant models
  • WP 7 Evaluation of land use and management to prevent catastrophic shifts
  • WP 8 Scenario analyses of upscaling preventive and restorative measures
  • WP 9 Knowledge transfer and dissemination

The project will be coordinated and managed by work package 1, which will also establish the project website. Work package 2 will collate observations on changes in drylands, and, by relating them to external drivers including human activity and changes in climate, will provide guidelines for experimental work in WPs 3, 4 and 5. Work package 3 will conduct field observations and experiments at micro plots in the field, to study the effects of abiotic conditions on plants as well as of facilitation and competition between plants. Work package 4 will carry out mesocosm experiments on artificial slopes to study the relationship between availability of resources and plant pattern and between plant pattern and sudden regime shifts. WP4 will also conduct experimental plantations to identify restoration thresholds and tipping points. Work package 5 will work at landscape scale and will assess the ecosystems in the study sites, and evaluate the potential for restoring these, using process knowledge gained in WP3 and 4. Work package 6 will develop models that predict sudden regime shifts in dryland ecosystems, using knowledge and data from WPs 2-5. Work package 7 will identify and evaluate potential management practices that could be used for sustainable management of dryland ecosystems. Work package 8 will develop a socio-economic model that uses results of the biophysical model from WP6, will model scenarios of promising land management strategies, and will provide policy recommendations. Finally, Work Package 9 will develop a communication and dissemination strategy, will inform the different types of stakeholders, and will develop the web-based information system CASCADIS, which will house the project results.

The CASCADE consortium is composed of 14 partners from 9 countries in Europe. The objectives of CASCADE demand an international and multidisciplinary approach and could not be carried out by one country. The consortium consists of Universities and Research Institutes with different expertise and focus in environmental research.Alterra coordinates the project, but is also involved in work packages 2-9.

The project started on January 1st, 2012 and will last until June 30th, 2017.