Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 464–472
Predicting regime shifts – drastic changes in dynamic behaviour – is a key challenge in ecology and other fields. Here we show that the class of ecological systems that will exhibit leading indicators of regime shifts is limited, and that there is a set of ecological models and, therefore, also likely to be a class of natural systems for which there will be no forewarning of a regime change. We first describe how nonlinearities in combination with environmental variability lead to model descriptions that will not have smooth potentials, concluding that many ecological systems are described by systems without smooth potentials and thus will not show typical leading indicators of regime shifts. We then illustrate the impact of these general arguments by numerically examining the dynamics of several model ecological systems under slowly changing conditions. Our results offer a cautionary note about the generality of forecasting sudden changes in ecosystems.