The vast majority of watersheds within the Great Lakes states are dominated by human activities and are often categorized as complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems are able to change over space and time and have the potential to exist in numerous different stable states in which the linkages and feedbacks from both social and natural processes remain fairly stable and predictable. Rapid changes in these systems caused by natural events or human disturbances can alter both the structure and function of the systems. Changes to a system’s structure and function often lead to the complex adaptive system shifting from one stable state regime to another. The point at which the system can move away from one stable state toward another is called a tipping point (or threshold). Eventually, over time, a socio-ecological system will reach a new equilibrium (i.e., stable state) in terms of both structure and function, but the ecological integrity is often severely degraded and may not be able to adequately support the natural and/or social systems relying on it. Once a tipping point has been crossed, the system will automatically begin to rearrange itself into the new regime. If tipping points are crossed and result in unfavorable changes, transitioning from the new equilibrium state back to the old equilibrium state may be difficult if not impossible. Forcing a complex adaptive system to revert back to an old equilibrium state, if even possible, often requires considerable amounts of energy and potentially monetary resources if humans engage in system restoration efforts.
Governmental entities and local watershed restoration/conservation groups have begun to recognize the importance of preemptive management (i.e., managing before problems arise) when it comes to managing natural resources and ecosystems. Monitoring the current status of ecosystem components (i.e., water quality) and directing management efforts based on potential tipping points, may help to maintain or restore favorable ecosystem characteristics while avoiding unfavorable changes in ecosystem status, structure, and function. Adaptive management allows for the adjustment of planning/management decisions and implementation strategies based on observable environmental and societal impacts. Engaging in adaptive management will ensure that decisions are being made with the recognition that outcomes from these decisions may result in a number of different acceptable outcomes, each allowing for the socio-ecological system to adapt to the changes in a way in which its ecological integrity remains uncompromised.
Learn more about the development of the Tipping Points and Indicators Project