Flickering as an early warning signal

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Most work on generic early warning signals for critical transitions focuses on indicators of the phenomenon of critical slowing down that precedes a range of catastrophic bifurcation points. However, in highly stochastic environments, systems will tend to shift to alternative basins of attraction already far from such bifurcation points. In fact, strong perturbations (noise) may cause the system to "flicker" between the basins of attraction of the system's alternative states. As a result, under such noisy conditions, critical slowing down is not relevant, and one would expect its related generic leading indicators to fail, signaling an impending transition. Here, we systematically explore how flickering may be detected and interpreted as a signal of an emerging alternative attractor. We show that-although the two mechanisms differ-flickering may often be reflected in rising variance, lag-1 autocorrelation and skewness in ways that resemble the effects of critical slowing down. In particular, we demonstrate how the probability distribution of a flickering system can be used to map potential alternative attractors and their resilience. Thus, while flickering systems differ in many ways from the classical image of critical transitions, changes in their dynamics may carry valuable information about upcoming major changes. © 2013 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-317
JournalTheoretical Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • critical slowing-down
  • regime shifts
  • ecological-systems
  • critical transitions
  • climate
  • indicators
  • ecosystems
  • thresholds
  • robustness
  • noise

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