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Researchers eavesdropping on complex signals emanating from a remote Wisconsin lake have detected what they say is an unmistakable warning -- a death knell -- of the impending collapse of the lake's aquatic ecosystem. Researchers have found that models used to assess catastrophic changes in economic and medical systems can also predict environmental collapse. Stock market crashes, epileptic seizures, and ecological breakdowns are all preceded by a measurable increase in variance—be it fluctuations in brain waves, the Dow Jones index, or, in the case of the Wisconsin lake, chlorophyll.
The implications of the National Science Foundation-supported study are big, says Carpenter. They suggest that, with the right kind of monitoring, it may be possible to track the vital signs of any ecosystem and intervene in time to prevent what is often irreversible damage to the environment.