Science currently lacks a framework for predicting when, where, why, and how surprisingly abrupt and fundamental changes are likely to occur in ecosystems and other complex systems. Rates of environmental change are accelerating, and understanding the consequences of these 21st-Century changes for natural resources and human wellbeing is among the biggest challenges in contemporary ecology. We will develop and apply new theoretical and mathematical approaches to detect and predict abrupt ecological changes, creating a new UW-Madison Center for Study of Abrupt Change in Ecological Systems (ACES). We will develop mathematical and statistical models that describe system dynamics without forcing a priori assumptions about ecosystem processes. The challenges associated with anticipating abrupt changes arise in all ecosystems, so solutions require the close integration of novel theoretical and modeling approaches with high-quality empirical data drawn from a diverse array of managed and unmanaged ecosystems. We will focus on a diverse set of four real-world ‘model ecosystems’, each characterized by complex spatial dynamics and time lags that can mask impending abrupt change, and each tied to critical resources important to Wisconsin and US economies that are vulnerable to sudden change.
Three postdoctoral researchers with complementary, cutting-edge skills will produce critical synergies and the focused effort required for rapid progress. Outcomes include a graduate seminar taught jointly by the PIs; at least six manuscripts; a proposal development workshop; and at least one major grant application (e.g. NSF programs in Macrosystems, Innovation in Food/Water/Energy Systems (INFEWS), or Risk and Resilience). This new collaborative research will fuel the growth and integration of theoretical and empirical expertise at UW-Madison needed to produce critical breakthroughs and shape ecological research for the coming two or three decades.
Lead scientists: Jien Zhang, Chris Kucharik