Research Activities

Throughout the two phases of this collaborative research project, we are working to advance our scientific understanding of the complex ecological and social dynamics within ocean and coastal ecosystems. Ultimately, our goal is to move beyond this basic scientific understanding to develop, test, and vet practical, tipping point-based approaches and tools that can be integrated into marine ecosystem based management.

Phase One (September 2012-September 2014):

In the first phase of the project, we built the foundation for later case study work through synthesis and analysis of existing data from around the world:  We analyzed the correlates of success in the application of ecosystem thresholds in management, systematically reviewing examples of tipping points in coastal and marine ecosystems, and quantifying threshold responses of ecosystem components to key stressors like nutrient input, temperature, and harvest. We also analyzed single-sector case study examples where an understanding of thresholds could lead to better management, and started work on building models of tradeoffs in ecosystem services that take tipping points into account.

Members of the Ocean Tipping Points team took leading roles in studying various aspects of our Phase One research activities including: 

  • Literature Review - Understanding the major challenges that impede the application of tipping points science to management practices that incorporate ecosystem thresholds and early warning indicators
  • Management Review - Can we use the knowledge of environmental tipping points to manage natural resources more effectively and efficiently?
  • Ecosystem Shifts - A global database of marine ecosystem shifts
  • Nonlinear Relationships - Improving our understanding of how marine ecosystem properties respond to human and environmental stressors
  • Law and Policy Review - Identifying the existing legal, regulatory, and policy vehicles that will enable management-uptake of tipping point science

Phase Two (September 2014-September 2016): 

In the second half of the project, we are using a suite of research activities to develop the science needed to apply ecosystem thresholds and indicators to single- and multi-sector problems in our case study locations - Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area and Reserve in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. By conducting legal and policy analyses, we seek to reveal the most likely routes for these concepts, results and tools to be incorporated into management decision-making. We are also tying together the results of Phase One and Two into a toolbox and general framework for setting multi-sector activity target levels within the context of ecosystem tipping points.

Members of the Ocean Tipping Points team are also taking leading roles in studying various aspects of our Phase Two researching activities including: 

  • Single Sector Thresholds - Making thoughtful decisions about individual marine activities, like fishing, may help to benefit other activities, from tourism to transportation to traditional uses
  • Ecosystem Tradeoff Services - A planning tool to identify management options that minimize conflicts, maximize benefits, and avoid catastrophic ecosystem shifts
  • Early Warning Indicators - Can early warning indicators be identified and used across marine ecosystems?
  • Cumulative Impacts - Do models of cumulative human impact capture actual levels of degradation, and can we use these models to predict when human activities will cause tipping points in marine ecosystem condition?
  • Social Preferences - What do you want your future to be? Analyses to understand societal preferences for different ecosystem states.

Throughout the entirety of the project, the Ocean Tipping Points team is developing a Conceptual Framework that incorporates our growing body of knowledge on ecosystem thresholds into marine management decisions. This conceptual framework will serve as a blueprint to help managers apply the concepts behind the science of ecosystem thresholds.


You can also learn more about our specific research activities by selecting them from the menu on the right.

Photo Credit: James Watt