Multistability in Ecosystems: Concerns and Opportunities for Ecosystem Function in Variable Environments

  • Ehud MeronEmail author
  • Yair Mau
  • Yuval R. Zelnik
Part of the Mathematics of Planet Earth book series (MPE, volume 5)


Ecosystems are highly nonlinear dissipative systems characterized by multiplicity of stable and unstable states. Two major concerns are associated with multistable ecosystems in variable environments. The first is related to the increased likelihood of extreme climate events at regional scales, such as droughts, floods, and heat waves, that may result in abrupt transitions to malfunctioning ecosystem states. The second concern is related to the dominant role played by humans in shaping and transforming the ecology of the Earth, and to the detrimental effects that such transformations often have. Using mathematical models of dryland ecosystems as a case study, we discuss recent advances that shed new light on these concerns. We first argue that state transitions can be gradual or incomplete rather than abrupt, providing opportunities for prevention and recovery. We further argue that analyzing the unstable states that exist along with the stable ones, identifying their existence ranges and their stable and unstable manifolds, can help to devise human intervention forms that direct ecosystems towards desired functional ecosystem states, without impairing ecosystem function. We conclude by presenting open problems and delineating further research directions.


Dryland ecosystems Vegetation patterns Multistability Front dynamics Abrupt and gradual state transitions Human intervention 



Some of the results described here have been reported in earlier publications with additional colleagues, including Golan Bel, Stephan Getzin, Aric Hagberg, Lev Haim, Omer Tzuk, and Hezi Yizhaq. We gratefully acknowledge their contributions. The research leading to the results described in this chapter received funding from the Israel Science Foundation Grant 305/13.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and Physics DepartmentBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeershebaIsrael
  2. 2.Department of Soil and Water SciencesRobert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, The Hebrew University of JerusalemRehovotIsrael
  3. 3.Centre for Biodiversity Theory and ModellingTheoretical and Experimental Ecology Station, CNRSMoulisFrance

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