Predicting Catastrophe

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


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

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

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