Overcoming the challenges in the science, application, and management of ecosystem thresholds

While the study of ecological thresholds has skyrocketed over the last decade, there are still major challenges that impede the application of this science to management practices that incorporate ecosystem thresholds and early warning indicators


Big Picture

It is becoming increasingly clear that managing for ecosystem thresholds is a necessary but difficult task. As human stressors increase in the world’s ocean, there are an increasing number of examples that document systems crossing ecological thresholds or tipping points, which often produce undesirable social and ecological consequences. While scientific attention to ecological thresholds and the detection of early warning indicators has significantly increased over the last decade, there are still several challenges that hinder the uptake of the science into resource management decisions. Our literature review synthesizes three of the most pressing challenges that exist, including identifying and forecasting thresholds, applying threshold science to management, and managing with respect to thresholds. Using multiple examples and case studies, we highlight ways threshold science can be applied to management now in spite of the scientific gaps. 

Why we did it

Understanding the challenges that exist in forecasting tipping points and managing with respect to thresholds will help to highlight where additional research, engagement, and governance reforms can increase the uptake and application of the best available science by decision-makers.

How we did it 

We reviewed published scientific literature and management examples to identify the challenges associated with:

  1. Identifying and forecasting thresholds
  2. Applying threshold science and theory to marine resource management
  3. Managing with respect to thresholds

What we discovered

We found that:

  1. Numerous mathematical approaches have been developed to identify early warning indicators that can predict impending ecological thresholds, but these methods often require large, long-term datasets and are most often developed for model systems or systems that have already crossed a threshold
  2. Early warning indicators are only likely to be useful for management if we can reliably indicate how soon a system is likely to cross a threshold
  3. Much of our knowledge about thresholds and early warning indicators comes from models that often fail to capture the diversity and complexity of ecological interactions.
  4. The integration of threshold science into management requires an improved understanding of what types of systems are likely to exhibit threshold behavior, what type of threshold a system will experience and where it lies, and if it is possible to recover once a threshold is crossed
  5. Current managerial and political paradigms are not structured to support rapid decision making or policy enactment, which is often necessary when managing for ecological thresholds
  6. Threshold science can be applied in real-world management decision now by managing systems proactively, managing for thresholds at the appropriate scale, routinely monitoring key components of the ecosystem, and understanding tradeoffs associated with crossing an ecological threshold  

What’s next

We provided recommendations for addressing these challenges so that thresholds and early warning indicators can be successfully incorporated into management processes. These recommendations are further investigated in our management and scientific meta-analysis and review projects and will provide a foundation for the overall project.


This literature review provides the background for why the Ocean Tipping Point project is a necessary and important contribution to science, management, and policy.

We have published our results in the Journal of Frontiers in Marine Science: Foley et al. 2015. Using Ecological Thresholds to Inform Resource Management: Current Options and Future Possibilities. Front. Mar.Sci.2:95. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2015.00095

Building Blocks

The challenges and recommendations provide areas to focus our efforts as the overall project moves forward.


Melissa Foley and Mike Fox

Project Completion

June 2014

Learn more about our other Research Activities with the Ocean Tipping Points project.