Anticipating land surface change

Richard Thomas Streeter, Andrew Dugmore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


The interplay of human actions and natural processes over varied spatial and temporal scales can result in abrupt transitions between contrasting land surface states. Understanding these transitions is a key goal of sustainability science because they can represent abrupt losses of natural capital. This paper recognizes flickering between alternate land surface states in advance of threshold change and critical slowing down in advance of both threshold changes and noncritical transformation. The early warning signals we observe are rises in autocorrelation, variance, and skewness within millimeter- resolution thickness measurements of tephra layers deposited in A.D. 2010 and A.D. 2011. These signals reflect changing patterns of surface vegetation, which are known to provide early warning signals of critical transformations. They were observed toward migrating soil erosion fronts, cryoturbation limits, and expanding deflation zones, thus providing potential early warning signals of land surface change. The record of the spatial patterning of vegetation contained in contemporary tephra layers shows how proximity to land surface change could be assessed in the widespread regions affected by shallow layers of volcanic fallout (those that can be subsumed within the existing vegetation cover). This insight shows how we could use tephra layers in the stratigraphic record to identify “near misses,” close encounters with thresholds that did not lead to tipping points, and thus provide additional tools for archaeology, sustainability science, and contemporary land management.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5779-5784
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - 9 Apr 2013


  • geomorphology
  • Resilience


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