State changes: insights from the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research Network
Understanding the complex and unpredictable ways ecosystems are changing and predicting the state of ecosystems and the services they will provide in the future requires coordinated, long-term research. This paper is a product of a U.S. National Science Foundation funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network synthesis effort that addressed anticipated changes in future populations and communities. Each LTER site described what their site would look like in 50 or 100 yr based on long-term patterns and responses to global change drivers in each ecosystem. Common themes emerged and predictions were grouped into state change, connectivity, resilience, time lags, and cascading effects. Here, we report on the “state change” theme, which includes examples from the Georgia Coastal (coastal marsh), Konza Prairie (mesic grassland), Luquillo (tropical forest), Sevilleta (arid grassland), and Virginia Coastal (coastal grassland) sites. Ecological thresholds (the point at which small changes in an environmental driver can produce an abrupt and persistent state change in an ecosystem quality, property, or phenomenon) were most commonly predicted. For example, in coastal ecosystems, sea-level rise and climate change could convert salt marsh to mangroves and coastal barrier dunes to shrub thicket. Reduced fire frequency has converted grassland to shrubland in mesic prairie, whereas overgrazing combined with drought drive shrub encroachment in arid grasslands. Lastly, tropical cloud forests are susceptible to climate-induced changes in cloud base altitude leading to shifts in species distributions. Overall, these examples reveal that state change is a likely outcome of global environmental change across a diverse range of ecosystems and highlight the need for long-term studies to sort out the causes and consequences of state change. The diversity of sites within the LTER network facilitates the emergence of overarching concepts about state changes as an important driver of ecosystem structure, function, services, and futures.