Self-organization and vegetation collapse in salt marsh ecosystems.

Johan van de Koppel*, Daphne van der Wal, Jan P. Bakker, Peter M.J. Herman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

190 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Complexity theory predicts that local feedback processes may strongly affect the organization of ecosystems on larger spatial scales. Whether complexity leads to increased resilience and stability or to increased vulnerability and criticality remains one of the dominant questions in ecology. We present a combined theoretical and empirical study of complex dynamics in mineralogenic salt marsh ecosystems that emerge from a positive feedback between clay accumulation and plant growth. Positive feedback induces self-organizing within the ecosystem, which buffers for the strong physical gradient that characterizes the marine-terrestrial boundary, and improves plant growth along the gradient. However, as a consequence of these self-organizing properties, salt marshes approach a critical state as the edge of the salt marsh and the adjacent intertidal flat becomes increasingly steep and vulnerable to wave attack. Disturbance caused, for instance, by a storm may induce a cascade of vegetation collapse and severe erosion on the cliff edge, leading to salt marsh destruction. Our study shows that on short timescales, self-organization improves the functioning of salt marsh ecosystems. On long timescales, however, self-organization may lead to destruction of salt marsh vegetation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E1-E12
JournalThe American Naturalist
Volume165
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2005
Externally publishedYes

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    van de Koppel, J., van der Wal, D., Bakker, J. P., & Herman, P. M. J. (2005). Self-organization and vegetation collapse in salt marsh ecosystems. The American Naturalist, 165(1), E1-E12.