Ocean Tipping Points

Gulf of Mexico Project

Ocean Tipping Points Program is a collaborative research project in which the Gulf of Mexico IEA participates in.


What is an ocean tipping point?

When a small change in environmental conditions or human use results in a large, often abrupt, change in ecosystem structure, function and benefits to people.


Why study tipping points in the Gulf of Mexico?

Understanding where these ocean tipping points are in the Gulf of Mexico can help improve restoration and management. The northern Gulf of Mexico is an ecologically and economically productive ecosystem, generating over 1.3 billion pounds in fishery landings and 470 million barrels of oil each year as well as supporting a tourism industry estimated to be worth $20 billion annually. The ecosystem is exposed to a number of chronic stressors including eutrophication from the Mississippi River watershed (which covers over 40% of the continental U.S. landmass), coastal development, habitat modification, and alterations to temperature and acidification levels. Other stressors are more episodic in nature and include hurricanes, oil spills, and external market shocks such as changes in oil and shrimp prices. Therefore, ecosystem-scale managers who are tasked with restoring or managing the ecosystem or ecosystem components to some desirable state must be equipped with an understanding of how the ecosystem responds to change.


What is the goal?

NOAA scientists would like to be better able to detect major ecological changes, such as nonlinearities, regime shifts, and tipping points using new methodological techniques. Moreover, they want to expand our work to determine how they can anticipate tipping points and the likely ecosystem changes they will produce, as well as subsequent ecosystem services provided. Ultimately, our goal is to use this knowledge to assist Gulf-scale management bodies (primarily the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council) in achieving their missions. With a better understanding of the behavior of the ecosystem, they can improve expectations regarding restoration and management goals and reduce the likelihood of exceeding tipping points that move the system into an undesirable state.

How will this be useful to managers?

The tools and knowledge NOAA scientists generate will help support ocean planning and ecosystem-based management in the Gulf of Mexico by providing:
A baseline to help track ecosystem change through time Maps of ecosystem type and condition Ecosystem monitoring metrics Strategies to prioritize and address major stressors Tradeoff analysis to help prioritize among management options

How will the Gulf of Mexico IEA team do this?

Our multidisciplinary research team has been involved in research to detect trends in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and describe major ecosystem shifts. To date, they have described and detected a large-scale ecosystem re-organization in response to shifts in the AMO phase and ecosystem management (Karnauskas et al. 2015). They recognize there are other major ecological changes that have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem which they have not yet detected or quantified. These are driven by internal and external forcing, including ecological changes due to modifications in human behavior (i.e. fishing effort) driven by external market forcing (i.e. foreign shrimp market prices) and by technological disasters (i.e. the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).

In particular, understanding ecosystem-scale impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an oft stated objective that they have struggled to achieve. However, they likely now have enough data to begin examining the ecosystem response to this event and determine if it resulted in another tipping point, either on the gulf-wide or local scale.

The GoM IEA team has already started to gather data for this project. They have a number of social and ecological data sets that they have collated for the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem status report. The indicators are currently calculated largely at the Gulf-wide scale, but they are working on developing complementary datasets focused on Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. These data sets are tailored to more specific analyses regarding the detection of tipping points and ecological changes related to specific major ecosystem shocks, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the 2005 hurricane season.

Who is working on this?

  • Restoration manager (Jean Cowan, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council)
  • Sociologist who specializes in working with coastal communities (Amy Freitag, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science)
  • Scientist-manager liaison (Shannon Martin)
  • Social scientist specializing in Human Geography (Seann Regan, NOAA National Center for Coastal Ocean Science)
  • Computer scientist (Neda Trifonova, University of Miami)
  • Socioecologist (Christopher Kelble, NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory)
  •  Fisheries manager (Morgan Kilgour, Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council)
  • Fisheries scientist (Mandy Karnauskas, Southeast Fisheries Science Center)

Having a diverse team will help us work together to understand the full socioecological causes and consequences of tipping points in the Gulf of Mexico. This is critical to restoration and management of the Gulf of Mexico, because restoration needs to buffer our ability to avoid unwanted tipping points and management needs to do the same, but also be able to respond to unavoidable tipping points, such as those due to climate cycles and change. Thus, there is a representative from both the restoration and management efforts.

In 2017 the Gulf of Mexico Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (GoM IEA) team attended a workshop that introduced the team to the application of new techniques and resources to answer specific management and restoration issues in the Gulf of Mexico.

Next Steps

The next steps of this project are to gather more data where needed and to determine what the best ways to incorporate this information and methods into a management decisions context are. NOAA scientists are going to look at the indicators derived for ecosystem status reports to see if they can detect tipping points and the effects of tipping points in a system. They also want to investigate the relationships between ecological and social tipping points, such as if a rapid wetland loss precipitates changes in fishing activity.

About the Ocean Tipping Points Program

The Ocean Tipping Points project brings together experts from many fields. They are natural and social scientists, law and policy experts, and managers, each offering a critical piece of the puzzle. Our collective expertise covers population and community ecology, mathematical modeling, environmental law, marine policy, cultural anthropology, sociology, geography, economics, fisheries biology, and marine resource management. This project represents a unique opportunity to share that expertise through a truly transdisciplinary collaboration where our ultimate goal is to develop results and insights that are useful, usable, and used by managers to improve the condition of marine ecosystems.

For more information see the OTP website: http://oceantippingpoints.org


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Ocean Tipping Points Workshop Participants
Ocean Tipping Points Workshop Participants, Santa Barbara 2017.