Photo credit: Nature
Figure 1: Patchy vegetation characteristic of arid lands in the Reserva Ornitologica de El Planeron in Belchite, northeastern Spain.
Ecology: Signals of impending change
by James B. Grace
An analysis of arid lands around the world shows how patterns in vegetation may serve as harbingers of things to come.
Society has an increasing awareness that there are finite limits to what we can expect the planet to absorb and still provide goods and services at current rates1. Both historical reconstructions and contemporary events continue to remind us that ecological regime changes are often abrupt rather than gradual. This reality motivates researchers who seek to discover leading indicators for impending ecosystem change. Berdugo et al.2 report an important advance in our ability to anticipate the conversion of arid lands from self-organized, self-maintaining and productive ecosystems, to a state characterized by disorganization and low functionality. Such conversions have important implications for our understanding of ‘desertification’ — which is a shift from arid to desert-like conditions.
Theoretical studies have suggested that patterns in the patchiness of vegetation might indicate how close a system is to making an abrupt change to desert-like conditions3,4,5. Empirical studies, however, have tended to show instead that simply the total cover of vegetation, rather than its arrangement, often foretells the state of the system4,5,6,7,8,9. Berdugo et al.2 combine these competing ideas into one integrated perspective. They show how major environmental drivers, such as aridity, influence both vegetation cover and patchiness, as well as where self-organizing, stabilizing forces in the vegetation are likely to be found.