Predicting Catastrophe

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


What makes a tipping point finally tip? New research reveals a fascinating mechanism. Complex systems, like the earth’s climate, coral reefs, oceans, and social-economic systems, often react in a surprising way to change. When conditions change gradually, the system may respond little until a critical tipping point is reached, after which the system may collapse completely. After collapse, it’s nearly impossible to restore the original state of the system. Yet managers have had difficulty predicting catastrophic transition without a deep knowledge of the underlying mechanisms.

But now, Egbert van Nes and Marten Scheffer have analyzed models concluded there’s a simpler way to predict a catastrophic transition. Their work, in the June issue of The American Naturalist, shows that after small disturbances the system recovers much more slowly if a collapse is near. They argue that this slower recovery serves as an early warning signal for upcoming shifts. In practice, the recovery rate can be determined from small experiments, or by analyzing the natural variations in a time series.

So, will we do it? It’s kind of like taking a DNA test to see if you’re going to inherit a fatal disease or not. Few at risk do. –JULIA WHITTY

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate