Early Warning Signals of Ecological Transitions: Methods for Spatial Patterns

S. Kefi, V. Guttal, W.A. Brock, S.R. Carpenter, A.M. Ellison, V.N. Livina, D.A. Seekell, M. Scheffer, E.H. van Nes, V. Dakos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

182 Citations (Scopus)


A number of ecosystems can exhibit abrupt shifts between alternative stable states. Because of their important ecological and economic consequences, recent research has focused on devising early warning signals for anticipating such abrupt ecological transitions. In particular, theoretical studies show that changes in spatial characteristics of the system could provide early warnings of approaching transitions. However, the empirical validation of these indicators lag behind their theoretical developments. Here, we summarize a range of currently available spatial early warning signals, suggest potential null models to interpret their trends, and apply them to three simulated spatial data sets of systems undergoing an abrupt transition. In addition to providing a step-by-step methodology for applying these signals to spatial data sets, we propose a statistical toolbox that may be used to help detect approaching transitions in a wide range of spatial data. We hope that our methodology together with the computer codes will stimulate the application and testing of spatial early warning signals on real spatial data.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere92097
Number of pages13
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • patch-size distribution
  • whole-ecosystem experiment
  • regime shifts
  • vegetation patterns
  • catastrophic shifts
  • aerial photographs
  • suitable indicator
  • leading indicator
  • arid ecosystems
  • climate-change


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