Early warning signals of changing resilience in the biogeochemistry and biology of a northern hardwood forest

Alexandra R. Contosta, John J. Battles, John L. Campbell, Charles T. Driscoll, Sarah R. Garlick, Richard T. Holmes, Gene E. Likens, Nicholas L. Rodenhouse, Shannon H. Rogers, Pamela H. Templer, Matthew A. Vadeboncoeur, Peter M. Groffman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Resilience is the ability of ecosystems to maintain function while experiencing perturbation. Globally, forests are experiencing disturbances of unprecedented quantity, type, and magnitude that may diminish resilience. Early warning signals are statistical properties of data whose increase over time may provide insights into decreasing resilience, but there have been few applications to forests. We quantified four early warning signals (standard deviation, lag-1 autocorrelation, skewness, and kurtosis) across detrended time series of multiple ecosystem state variables at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire, USA and analyzed how these signals have changed over time. Variables were collected over periods from 25 to 55 years from both experimentally manipulated and reference areas and were aggregated to annual timesteps for analysis. Long-term (>50 year) increases in early warning signals of stream calcium, a key biogeochemical variable at the site, illustrated declining resilience after decades of acid deposition, but only in watersheds that had previously been harvested. Trends in early warning signals of stream nitrate, a critical nutrient and water pollutant, likewise exhibited symptoms of declining resilience but in all watersheds. Temporal trends in early warning signals of some of groups of trees, insects, and birds also indicated changing resilience, but this pattern differed among, and even within, groups. Overall, ∼60% of early warning signals analyzed indicated decreasing resilience. Most of these signals occurred in skewness and kurtosis, suggesting ‘flickering’ behavior that aligns with emerging evidence of the forest transitioning into an oligotrophic condition. The other ∼40% of early warning signals indicated increasing or unchanging resilience. Interpretation of early warning signals in the context of system specific knowledge is therefore essential. They can be useful indicators for some key ecosystem variables; however, uncertainties in other variables highlight the need for further development of these tools in well-studied, long-term research sites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number094052
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Volume18
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023

Keywords

  • acid deposition
  • climate change
  • early warning signals
  • ecological resilience
  • temperate forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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