, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 163-174,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 11 Nov 2009

Spatial correlation as leading indicator of catastrophic shifts


Generic early-warning signals such as increased autocorrelation and variance have been demonstrated in time-series of systems with alternative stable states approaching a critical transition. However, lag times for the detection of such leading indicators are typically long. Here, we show that increased spatial correlation may serve as a more powerful early-warning signal in systems consisting of many coupled units. We first show why from the universal phenomenon of critical slowing down, spatial correlation should be expected to increase in the vicinity of bifurcations. Subsequently, we explore the applicability of this idea in spatially explicit ecosystem models that can have alternative attractors. The analysis reveals that as a control parameter slowly pushes the system towards the threshold, spatial correlation between neighboring cells tends to increase well before the transition. We show that such increase in spatial correlation represents a better early-warning signal than indicators derived from time-series provided that there is sufficient spatial heterogeneity and connectivity in the system.