Universal rules discovered that allow anticipation of critical transitions

Oct 22, 2012
Credit: Tone Kirstin Bjordam

Sudden shifts in complex systems such as the climate, financial markets, ecosystems and even the human body can be preceded by surprisingly comparable warning signals. It is crucial to be able to predict such transitions, but this is notoriously difficult. In an article in the journal Science of October 19, a group of Wageningen University scientists and colleagues showed that systems that are on the verge of a critical transition often emit comparable signals.

At first glance, it appears improbable that a , an epileptic seizure, the collapse of a or a sudden transition in a financial system have something in common. However, the article in Science, a consortium of scientists headed by Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University, part of Wageningen UR, shows that completely different systems – such as the brain, the climate and financial markets – obey certain universal laws when they are at a critical transition point that make it possible to recognise early warning signals. This has to do with a phenomenon that is known in mathematics as 'Critical Slowing Down', implying that recovery from small perturbations becomes slow in the vicinity of tipping points.

Since Scheffer and colleagues postulated this idea in a Nature publication in 2009, an avalanche of studies, including seven in Nature and Science has provided evidence. The authors now make up the balance but also show that related families of generic early warning signals exist. For instance, certain universal features determine whether such as webs of species or webs of financial institutes will be robust or fragile.

Despite the overwhelming growth of evidence for these revolutionary ideas, Scheffer emphasises that the applications for universal warning signals are still in their infancy. He has launched an interdisciplinary research program 'SparcS' that is now exploring applications in medical sciences as well as in social sciences, ecology and climate research. A recent open access publication in PLoS-One together with a newly developed web resource ensure that the tools needed for such work are available in the public domain.

Explore further: More than half of biology majors are women, yet gender gaps remain in science classrooms

More information: Anticipating Critical Transitions. Marten Scheffer, Stephen R. Carpenter, Timothy M. Lenton, Jordi Bascompte, William Brock, Vasilis Dakos, Johan van de Koppel, Ingrid van de Leemput, Simon Levin, Egbert H. van Nes, Mercedes Pascual, John Vandermeer. Science 19 October 2012.

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User comments : 4

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5 / 5 (1) Oct 22, 2012
Recent Phys.org headlines:
"Universal rules discovered that allow anticipation of critical transitions" 10-22-12
"Climate change disasters could be predicted" 6-19-11
"Climate 'Tipping Points' May Arrive Without Warning, Says Top Forecaster" - 2-9-10
Evidently even predictability is unpredictable.
1 / 5 (2) Oct 22, 2012
Ok I've known this since 1984. Such was hinted at in Mandelbrot's Fractal geometry of Nature even prior
1 / 5 (1) Oct 24, 2012
Hmmm. Critical phenomena? I can make no distinction between 'Universal rules' and critical phenomena in physics.

not rated yet Oct 25, 2012
Yes. This is obvious in hindsight. Very good.

Chaotic systems that are close to a change of an attractor set are necessarily more sensitive to their existing conditions.

As the system becomes prone to the influence of more than one attractor it's behaviour will become apparently more random and small perturbations will increase the influence of one attractor or the other while if there is only one attractor, it an only change the influence of the single attractor.

Very good. I look forward to the idea being provided with a numeric fingerprint.