Project Overview

The Ocean Tipping Points collaborative research project seeks to understand and characterize tipping points in ocean ecosystems. This idea is not new. Many scientists before us have studied the complex dynamics of marine ecosystems, highlighting the potential for rapid, dramatic changes in ocean conditions. However, past science has done little to influence the way we manage marine ecosystems. We have an opportunity to change this, as promising new science converges with a paradigm shift toward ecosystem-based management of our coasts and oceans. 

For an overview of our project in pdf format, please click here

The science of tipping points

Tipping points occur when small shifts in human pressures or environmental conditions bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes in a system – whether in a human society, a physical system, an ecosystem or our planet’s climate. In the native longleaf pine forests of the US Southeast, the tipping point involves fire. Without frequent enough wildfire, fast-growing shortleaf pine invades, and the forest shifts rapidly into one that no longer functions in the same way – one that can’t, for example, provide essential habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that live only there. In the Baltic Sea, a series of threats pushed the system over a tipping point in the 1980s, from which it has yet to recover. Overfishing of top predators and fifty years of nutrient pollution combined with climate change resulted in a shift in the Baltic from a productive and highly valuable, cod-dominated ecosystem to one dominated instead by inedible jellyfish. 

For a greater understanding of the terminology and definitions of key concepts expressed as part of the Ocean Tipping Points project, please review our glossary.

A growing problem

More and more examples of tipping points in ecosystems around the world are raising concern among scientists and policymakers. In the oceans, diverse ecosystems ranging from reefs to estuaries to pelagic systems have undergone sudden, dramatic shifts. Changes in ocean climate, the abundance of key species, nutrients and other factors drive these shifts, with resulting effects on ocean food webs, habitats and ecosystem functions that have direct impacts on people’s livelihoods and well-being. Ocean tipping points are cause for concern because they are hard to anticipate and can be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. 

James Watt

Tipping points change the rules  

For managers of marine ecosystems, an understanding of tipping points is critical because they change the rules of the game. The new ecosystem state may function quite differently from the previous one, respond differently to management interventions, and provide different levels and types of benefits to people. Although there have been many critical advances in the science of ecosystem tipping points in recent years, managers still lack practical tools and information to help them anticipate and respond to ecosystem shifts. 

Overarching research goals

During this four-year project, our overarching research goals are to:

  1. Improve knowledge and understanding of ocean tipping points, their potential impacts, and their relevance to management.
  2. Develop and disseminate a toolbox of tested approaches for management of ecosystems prone to tipping points, which will allow managers to identify the “safe operating space” for decision-making to avoid  undesirable tipping points, set targets, monitor using early warning indicators, prioritize management actions, and evaluate progress toward ecosystem objectives.

Throughout 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.

Phase One - Foundational activities

Our focus is on synthesizing the research literature and analyzing existing data to build the foundation for applying this information to decision making. We are

  • analyzing what leads to better ecological outcomes in management that accounts for tipping points
  • systematically reviewing examples of tipping points in coastal and marine ecosystems from around the globe
  • quantifying threshold responses of ecosystem components to key stressors like nutrient input, temperature and harvest
  • conducting legal and policy analyses to reveal the most likely routes for incorporating these concepts, results and tools into management

Members of the Ocean Tipping Points team have taken leading roles in studying various aspects of our Phase One Research Activities. These research activities include:

  • 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 - Case study application

With partners from our two case study locations – the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site – we are

  • characterizing existing ecosystem regimes and analyze the factors that drive differences in the state of the ecosystem
  • quantifying the thresholds that mark the boundary between one ecosystem regime and others
  • identifying leading indicators of ecosystem shifts to serve as an early warning system for managers
  • analyzing the tradeoffs associated with managing for tipping points while trying to maximize the benefits that humans derive from the coast and ocean in these places

Members of the Ocean Tipping Points team are also taking leading roles in studying various aspects of our Phase Two Research Activities. These research activities include:

  • 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.

Beyond the science

The Ocean Tipping Points project brings together experts from many fields. We are natural and social scientists, law and policy experts, resource managers, communicators and educators, each offering a critical piece of the puzzle. Learn more about the Ocean Tipping Points team by viewing our About Us page. This project represents a unique opportunity to share our expertise through a truly transdisciplinary collaboration where our ultimate goal is to develop tools and insights that are useful and usable by managers to improve the condition of marine ecosystems. Our work is further guided by our Partners and our Advisors made up of policymakers, managers and scientists from around the world through an  Expert Management Advisory Group and Scientific Working Group.

The final product of this collaboration will be a toolbox, general framework and guide to setting targets for place-based management of multiple human activities within the context of ecosystem tipping points.

Photo Credits: Tim Laman, James Watt, Kelly Moore

Kelly Moore