Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: linking theory to observation

M. Scheffer, S.R. Carpenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2105 Citations (Scopus)


Occasionally, surprisingly large shifts occur in ecosystems. Theory suggests that such shifts can be attributed to alternative stable states. Verifying this diagnosis is important because it implies a radically different view on management options, and on the potential effects of global change on such ecosystems. For instance, it implies that gradual changes in temperature or other factors might have little effect until a threshold is reached at which a large shift occurs that might be difficult to reverse. Strategies to assess whether alternative stable states are present are now converging in fields as disparate as desertification, limnology, oceanography and climatology. Here, we review emerging ways to link theory to observation, and conclude that although, field observations can provide hints of alternative stable states, experiments and models are essential for a good diagnosis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)648-656
JournalTrends in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • multiple stable points
  • time-series analysis
  • shallow lakes
  • arid ecosystems
  • el-nino
  • vegetation
  • stability
  • biomanipulation
  • dominance
  • dynamics


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