There are few systems more complex—and more beautiful—than our natural ecosystems. Each element is like a Jenga piece—together, the pieces fit together perfectly, but when your tower begins to wobble, it can be hard to determine exactly where the critical weak points are. And just like a game of Jenga, we often have a hard time figuring out which piece will make the tower fall—or, in the case of an ecosystem, diagnosing exactly what drives ecosystem transformation. Thankfully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Acidification Program and the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science have recently teamed up to provide $3.5 million to four regional projects designed to look at this question that confounds resource management—is there a “tipping point” at which ecosystems change quickly due to specific factors, such as ocean acidification, warming and other progressive regional changes?
Ecosystems are incredibly complex collections of relationships, animals, locations, and processes, which together provide benefits to humans, including natural resources, such as fish, and services, such as clean water and air. But their complexity makes it challenging to determine exactly which factors drive change. When environmental shifts occur in a habitat, is it because of warming, acidification, or oxygen loss? Or could it be a combination of those things?
Ecologists often use the term “tipping points” as shorthand to describe the moment when an ecosystem transforms into an entirely new state. Those transformations can bring about substantive changes—the old state could be the one that provides human benefits, and the new state may not have those same benefits. And worse, new ecosystem states could be hard to reverse. For example, when coral reef ecosystems become overrun by macroalgae because of widespread reef bleaching and death, macroalgal turfs are really hard to displace.
Helping resource managers better understand where tipping points exist in a particular ecosystem is an important and worthwhile venture. This can help them manage drivers on the ecosystem in such a way as to avoid irreversible change that could take away critical resources and benefits that humans need.
The grants awarded by NOAA each have a few major elements in common: they’re trying to put science to work by synthesizing the research, working with managers or others who need the information, and identifying how that information can be put to best use. The ultimate goal of these grants is to help resource managers be more efficient and better informed with the information that these projects will develop. Whether you live in a coastal community or just enjoy the resources and services they provide, we can all agree that spending resources wisely to protect our natural environments is always the way to go.