Ocean Tipping Points

Principal Investigator(s): 

Carrie Kappel, Ben Halpern, and Kim Selkoe

An increasing number of examples of tipping points in ecosystems around the world have begun to raise concern among scientists and policymakers. In the oceans, diverse ecosystems ranging from reefs to estuaries to pelagic systems have undergone sudden, dramatic shifts. Changes in ocean climate, the abundance of key species, nutrients, and other factors drive these shifts, with resulting effects on ocean food webs, habitats, and ecosystem functions that have direct impacts on people’s livelihoods and well-being.

Ocean tipping points may be cause for particular concern because they are often unexpected and can be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Though there have been many critical advances in the science of ecosystem tipping points in recent years, there is still a dearth of practical tools and information available to managers to anticipate and respond to ecosystem shifts.

Through this four-year study, the team will synthesize data on when, where, and how marine ecosystem shifts occur, and develop early warning indicators and management tools to begin to help managers anticipate, avoid or respond to tipping points. As ecologists, lawyers, and social scientists working in close partnership with managers, the team is tackling these problems from both the science side and from the policy and implementation side. Working with local managers, the team will implement ideas and test results in two case study locations: Haida Gwaii (in British Columbia) and Hawaii.

University of California, Santa Barbara press release

Project formally titled "Ecosystem thresholds and indicators for marine spatial planning"

This work is supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California. Ocean Tipping Points partners include Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Council of the Haida Nation, and the State of Hawaii.

Photo Credit: Courtney Scarborough, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Ocean Tipping Points website

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