Marine tipping points

Reports of sudden and dramatic changes in the structure and function of New Zealand marine communities and ecosystems are on the rise.

New guidelines from NIWA and University of Auckland are helping local authorities and other marine resource managers detect these ’tipping points’ in time to take action.

Sudden dramatic and unexpected changes in marine ecosystems (tipping points) are being reported more frequently.

In collaboration with Simon Thrush from the University of Auckland, NIWA’s Judi Hewitt realised that local government and marine ecosystem managers need to be able to detect whether tipping points have happened, or if they’re likely to occur.

Their research reviewed previous studies of tipping points and produced guidelines to help develop regular monitoring and sampling that incorporates integrated and holistic knowledge about the underlying ecosystem.

“We searched the literature for guidelines that would drive the design of monitoring programmes able to detect past and approaching tipping points and analysed existing marine monitoring programmes in New Zealand.

“It turned out there were very few guidelines in the ecological, environmental or monitoring literature, although both simulation and other studies suggested that regular sampling within a year increased the likelihood of detecting approaching tipping points.

“Regular monitoring underpinned by ecological knowledge will help with preparedness and decision-making on appropriate action when things are going wrong,” she says.

The guidelines will be useful for regional councils, marine planners and organisations monitoring marine ecosystems.

The paper, Monitoring for tipping points in the marine environment, has been published in the Journal of Environment Management.