, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 1–13 | Cite as

Ecological Thresholds: The Key to Successful Environmental Management or an Important Concept with No Practical Application?

  • Peter M. GroffmanEmail author
  • Jill S. Baron
  • Tamara Blett
  • Arthur J. Gold
  • Iris Goodman
  • Lance H. Gunderson
  • Barbara M. Levinson
  • Margaret A. Palmer
  • Hans W. Paerl
  • Garry D. Peterson
  • N. LeRoy Poff
  • David W. Rejeski
  • James F. Reynolds
  • Monica G. Turner
  • Kathleen C. Weathers
  • John Wiens
Mini Review


An ecological threshold is the point at which there is an abrupt change in an ecosystem quality, property or phenomenon, or where small changes in an environmental driver produce large responses in the ecosystem. Analysis of thresholds is complicated by nonlinear dynamics and by multiple factor controls that operate at diverse spatial and temporal scales. These complexities have challenged the use and utility of threshold concepts in environmental management despite great concern about preventing dramatic state changes in valued ecosystems, the need for determining critical pollutant loads and the ubiquity of other threshold-based environmental problems. In this paper we define the scope of the thresholds concept in ecological science and discuss methods for identifying and investigating thresholds using a variety of examples from terrestrial and aquatic environments, at ecosystem, landscape and regional scales. We end with a discussion of key research needs in this area.


thresholds multiple stable states critical loads panarchy ecological surprises ecological modeling 



The conference that lead to this paper was supported by the US EPA National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. The paper was derived from conference presentations by Jill Baron, Peter Groffman, Lance Gunderson, Hans Paerl, Garry Peterson, LeRoy Poff, Jim Reynolds, Monica Turner and Kathleen Weathers.


  1. Alcamo J, Leemans R, Kreileman E. 1998. Global change scenarios of the 21st century. Results from the IMAGE 2.1. Oxford Pergamon and Amsterdam: Elsevier ScienceGoogle Scholar
  2. Allan JD. 2004. Landscapes and riverscapes: the influence of land use on stream ecosystems. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 35:257–284Google Scholar
  3. Andren H. 1994. Effects of habitat fragmentation on birds and mammals in landscapes with different proportions of suitable habitat. Oikos 71:355–66Google Scholar
  4. Baron JS, Rueth HM, Wolfe AM, Nydick KR, Allstott EJ, Minear JT, Moraska B. 2000a. Ecosystem responses to nitrogen deposition in the colorado front range. Ecosystems 3:352–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baron JS, Hartman M, Band LE, Lammers R. 2000b. Sensitivity of a high elevation Rocky Mountain watershed to altered climate and CO2. Water Resour Res 36:89–99Google Scholar
  6. Beisner BE, Haydon DT, Cuddington K. 2003. Alternative stable states in ecology. Front Ecol Environ 1:376–82Google Scholar
  7. Bissonette JA, ed. 1997. Wildlife and landscape ecology. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: SpringerGoogle Scholar
  8. Bledsoe BP, Watson CC. 2001. Effects of urbanization on channel instability. J Am Water Resour Assoc 37:255–70Google Scholar
  9. Bormann FH, Likens GE. 1979. Pattern and process in a forested ecosystem. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: SpringerGoogle Scholar
  10. Bowers MA, Matter SF. 1997. Landscape ecology of mammals: relationships between density and patch size. J Mammal 78:999–1013Google Scholar
  11. Brown JH, Valone TJ, Curtin CG. 1997. Reorganization of an arid ecosystem in response to recent climate change. Proc Natl Acad Sci 94:9729–33PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Brown JR, Herrick J, Price D. 1999. Managing low-output agroecosystems sustainably: the importance of ecological thresholds. Can J For Res 29:1112–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Carpenter SR, Ludwig D, Brock WA. 1999. Management of eutrophication for lakes subject to potentially irreversible change. Ecol Appl 9:751–71Google Scholar
  14. Carpenter SR, Turner M. 2000. Opening the black boxes: ecosystem science and economic valuation. Ecosystems 3:1–3Google Scholar
  15. Carpenter SR. 2002. Ecological futures: building an ecology of the long now. Ecology 83:2069–83Google Scholar
  16. Clark JS, Carpenter S, Barber M, Collins S, Dobson A, Foley JA, Lodge DM, Pascual M, Pielke R Jr, Pizer W, Pringle C, Reid WV, Rose KA, Sala O, Schlesinger WH, Wall DH, Wear D. 2001. Ecological forecasts: an emerging imperative. Science 293:657–60CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Connell JH, Sousa WP. 1983. On the evidence needed to judge ecological stability or persistence. Am Nat 121:789–824CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Daily GC, Ehrlich PR, Goulder LH, Lubchenco J, Matson PA, Mooney HA, Schneider SH, Woodwell GM, Tilman D. 1997. Ecosystem services: benefits supplied to human societies by natural ecosystems. Issues Ecol 2:1–16Google Scholar
  19. Dent CL, Cumming GS, Carpenter SR. 2002. Multiple states in river and lake ecosystems. Phil Trans R Soc B 357:635–45PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Driscoll CT, Lawrence GB, Bulger AJ, Butler TJ, Cronan CS, Eager C, Lambert KF, Likens GE, Stoddard JL, Weathers KC. 2001. Acidic deposition in the Northeastern US: sources and inputs, ecosystem effects and management strategies. BioScience 51:180–98Google Scholar
  21. Dublin HT, Sinclair ARE, McGlade J. 1990. Elephants and fire as causes of multiple stable states in the Serengeti-Mara woodlands. J Anim Ecol 59:1147–64Google Scholar
  22. Elmqvist T, Folke C, Nyström M, Peterson G, Bengtsson J, Walker B, Norberg J. 2003. Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Front Ecol Environ 1:488–94Google Scholar
  23. Emmett BA, Reynolds B. 2003. The role of models in addressing critical N loading to ecosystems. In: Canham CD, Cole JJ, Lauenroth WK, Eds. Models in ecosystem science. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press. p. 308–326Google Scholar
  24. Fath BD, Cabezas H, Pawlowski CW. 2003. Regime changes in ecological systems: an information theory approach. J Theor Biol 222:5170–530Google Scholar
  25. Foley JA, Coe MT, Scheffer M, Wang GL. 2003. Regime shifts in the Sahara and Sahel: interactions between ecological and climatic systems in Northern Africa. Ecosystems 6:524–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gardner RH, Milne BT, Turner MG, O’Neill RV. 1987. Neutral models for the analysis of broad-scale landscape patterns. Landscape Ecol 1:19–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Graf WL. 2003. Dam removal research: status and prospects. The John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington. p 151Google Scholar
  28. Gunderson LH. 2000. Ecological resilience-theory to practice. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 31:421–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gunderson L, Holling C, eds. 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington (DC): Island PressGoogle Scholar
  30. Hardesty J, Adams J, Gordon D, Provencher L. 2000. Simulating management with models. Conserv Biol Pract 1:26–31Google Scholar
  31. Harrison S. 1997. Persistent, localized outbreaks in the western tussock moth Orgyia vetusta: the roles of resource quality, predation and poor dispersal. Ecol Entomol 22:158–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hartvigsen G, Kinzig A, Peterson G. 1998. The use and analysis of complex adaptive systems in ecosystem science. Ecosystems 1:427–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Henson SM, Costantino RF, Desharnais RA, Cushing JM, Dennis B. 2002. Basins of attraction: population dynamics with two stable four-cycles. Oikos 98:17–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Holling CS. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 4:1–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Holling CS, ed. 1978. Adaptive environmental assessment and management. London: WileyGoogle Scholar
  36. Holling CS. 1996. Surprise for science, resilience for ecosystems, and incentives for people. Ecol Appl 6:733–5Google Scholar
  37. Karr JR, Chu EW. 2000. Sustaining living rivers. Hydrobiologia 422/423:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Klein RD. 1979. Urbanization and stream water quality impairment. Water Resour Bull 15:948–63Google Scholar
  39. Krummel JR, Gardner RH, Sugihara G, O’Neill RV, Coleman PR. 1987. Landscape patterns in a disturbed environment. Oikos 48:321–4Google Scholar
  40. Landers DH, Eilers JM, Brakke DF, Overton WS, Kellar PE, Silverstein ME, Schonbrod RD, Crowe RE, Linthurst RA, Omernik JM, Teague SA, Meier EP. 1987. Characteristics of lakes in the western US. Population description and physio-chemical relationships, vol. 1. Washington (DC): US EPA. 425 pGoogle Scholar
  41. Leemans R. 1999. Modeling for species and habitats: new opportunities for problem solving. Sci Total Environ 240:51–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Leopold LB, Wolman MG, Miller JP. 1964. Fluvial processes in geomorphology. San Francisco: WH Freeman & SonsGoogle Scholar
  43. Likens GE, Driscoll CT, Buso DC. 1996. Long-term effects of acid rain: response and recovery of a forest ecosystem. Science 272:244–6Google Scholar
  44. Lindenmayer DB, Cunningham RB, Pope ML, Donnelly CF. 1999. The response of arboreal marsupials to landscape context: a large-scale fragmentation study. Ecol Appl 9:594–611Google Scholar
  45. Ludwig D, Walker B, Holling CS. 1997. Sustainability, stability, and resilience. Conserv Ecol 1(7):7. URL: Scholar
  46. Ludwig JA, Wiens JA, Tongway DJ. 2000. A scaling rule for landscape patches and how it applies to conserving soil resources in savannas. Ecosystems 3:84–97Google Scholar
  47. Lundberg J, Moberg F. 2003. Mobile link organisms and ecosystem functioning: implications for ecosystem resilience and management. Ecosystems 6:87–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. May RM. 1977. Thresholds and breakpoints in ecosystems with a multiplicity of stable states. Nature 269:471–7Google Scholar
  49. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2003. Ecosystems and human well-being. Washington (DC): Island PressGoogle Scholar
  50. Montaña C, 1992. The colonization of bare areas in two-phase mosaics of an arid ecosystem. J Ecol 80:315–27Google Scholar
  51. Morley SA, Karr JR. 2002. Assessing and restoring the health of urban streams in the Puget Sound basin. Conserv Biol 16:1498–509CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. NRC (National Research Council). 2000. Clean coastal waters: understanding and reducing the effects of nutrient pollution. Washington (DC): National Academy PressGoogle Scholar
  53. Nydick KR. 2002. Mountain lake responses to elevated nitrogen deposition. PhD dissertation, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, ColoradoGoogle Scholar
  54. Paerl HW, Bales JD, Ausley LW, Buzzelli CP, Crowder LB, Eby LA, Fear JM, Go M, Peierls BL, Richardson TL, Ramus JS. 2001. Ecosystem impacts of three sequential hurricanes (Dennis, Floyd, and Irene) on the US’s largest lagoonal estuary, Pamlico Sound, NC. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 98(10):5655–60CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Paerl HW, Dyble J, Twomey L, Pinckney JL, Nelson J, Kerkhof L. 2002. Characterizing man-made and natural modifications of microbial diversity and activity in coastal ecosystems. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 81:487–507CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Paerl HW, Valdes LM, Pinckney JL, Piehler MF, Dyble J, Moisander PH. 2003. Phytoplankton photopigments as Indicators of Estuarine and Coastal Eutrophication. BioScience 53(10):953–64Google Scholar
  57. Parker G, Klingeman PC, McLean DG. 1982. Bedload and size distribution in paved gravel-bed streams. J Hydr Eng Div – ASCE 108:544–71Google Scholar
  58. Paul MJ, Meyer JL. 2001. Streams in the urban landscape. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 32:333–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Peterson G, Allen CR, Holling CS. 1998. Ecological resilience, biodiversity and scale. Ecosystems 1:6–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Peterson GD. 1999. Contagious disturbance and ecological resilience. Dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville, FloridaGoogle Scholar
  61. Peterson GD. 2002. Forest dynamics in the Southeastern United States: managing multiple stable states. In: Gunderson LH, Pritchard L Jr, eds. Resilience and the behavior of large-scale ecosystems. Washington (DC): Island Press. p 227–46Google Scholar
  62. Rebertus AJ, Williamson GB, Moser EB. 1989. Longleaf pine pyrogenicity and turkey oak mortality in Florida xeric sandhills. Ecology 70:60–70Google Scholar
  63. Redman CL, Kinzig AP. 2003. Resilience of past landscapes: resilience theory, society, and the Longue Duree. Conserv Ecol 7:14Google Scholar
  64. Rogers K, Biggs H. 1999. Integrating indicators, endpoints and value systems in strategic management of the rivers of the Kruger National Park. Freshw Biol 41:439–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rueth HM, Baron JS. 2002. Differences in Englemann spruce forest biogeochemistry east and west of the Continental Divide in Colorado, USA. Ecosystems 5:45–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Scheffer M, Carpenter S, Foley JA, Folke C, Walker B. 2001. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413:591–6CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Scheffer M, Carpenter SR. 2003. Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: linking theory to observation. Trends Ecol Evol 18:648–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Scott ML, Friedman JM, Auble GT. 1996. Fluvial process and the establishment of bottomland trees. Geomorphology 14:327–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Smith VH. 1998. Cultural eutrophication of inland, estuarine, and coastal waters. In: Pace ML, Groffman PM, Eds. Successes, limitations and frontiers in ecosystem science. Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer. p 7–49Google Scholar
  70. Stauffer D. 1985. Introduction to percolation theory. London: Taylor and FrancisGoogle Scholar
  71. Stauffer D, Aharony A. 1992. Introduction to percolation theory, 2nd ed. London: Taylor and FrancisGoogle Scholar
  72. Steele JH. 1998. Regime shifts in marine ecosystems. Ecol Appl 8(Suppl):S33–6Google Scholar
  73. Turner MG, Gardner RH, Dale VH, O’Neill RV. 1989. Predicting the spread of disturbance across heterogeneous landscapes. Oikos 55:121–9Google Scholar
  74. Turner MG, Romme WH. 1994. Landscape dynamics in crown fire ecosystems. Landscape Ecol 9:59–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Turner MG, Gardner RH, O’Neill RV. 2001. Landscape ecology in theory and practice: pattern and process. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: SpringerGoogle Scholar
  76. Walker B, Meyers JA. 2004. Thresholds in ecolgoical and social-ecological systems: a developing database. Ecol Soc 9(2):3 [online] URL: Scholar
  77. Walters CJ. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. New York: McGraw HillGoogle Scholar
  78. Weathers KC, Lovett GM, Likens GE, Lathrop R. 2000. The effect landscape features on deposition to Hunter Mountain, Catskill Mountains, New York. Ecol Appl 10:528–40Google Scholar
  79. Williams MW, Tonnessen KA. 2000. Critical loads for inorganic nitrogen deposition in the Colorado Front Range, USA. Ecol Appl 10:1648–65Google Scholar
  80. With KA, King AW. 1997. The use and misuse of neutral landscape models in ecology. Oikos 97:219–29Google Scholar
  81. Wolfe AP, Baron JS, Cornett RJ. 2001. Unprecedented changes in alpine ecosystems related to anthropogenic nitrogen deposition. J Paleolimnol 25:1–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Zimov SA, Chuprynin VI, Oreshko AP, Chapin FS, Reynolds JF, Chapin MC. 1995. Steppe-tundra transition: a herbivore-driven biome shift at the end of the Pleistocene. Am Nat 146:765–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter M. Groffman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jill S. Baron
    • 2
  • Tamara Blett
    • 3
  • Arthur J. Gold
    • 4
  • Iris Goodman
    • 5
  • Lance H. Gunderson
    • 6
  • Barbara M. Levinson
    • 5
  • Margaret A. Palmer
    • 7
  • Hans W. Paerl
    • 8
  • Garry D. Peterson
    • 9
  • N. LeRoy Poff
    • 10
  • David W. Rejeski
    • 1
  • James F. Reynolds
    • 11
  • Monica G. Turner
    • 12
  • Kathleen C. Weathers
    • 1
  • John Wiens
    • 13
  1. 1.Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA
  2. 2.Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, US Geological SurveyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Air Resources DivisionUSDI-National Park ServiceDenverUSA
  4. 4.Department of Natural Resources Science, 105 Coastal Institute in KingstonUniversity of Rhode IslandKingstonUSA
  5. 5.US Environmental Protection Agency HeadquartersWashingtonUSA
  6. 6.Department of Environmental StudiesEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  7. 7.University of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  8. 8.Institute of Marine SciencesUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillMorehead CityUSA
  9. 9.Center for LimnologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  10. 10.Department of BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  11. 11.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  12. 12.Department of ZoologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  13. 13.The Nature ConservancyArlingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations