Regime shift indicators fail under noise levels commonly observed in ecological systems



Ecological regime shifts are rapid, potentially devastating changes in ecosystem state that last for extended periods of time. Previous theoretical work has generated numerous early-warning indicators of regime shifts, some of which have been empirically demonstrated in closed ecological systems. Here we evaluated a suite of indicators using a previously studied three-species model under conditions likely to be observed in field studies of open ecological systems. Simulations included large correlated fluctuations in extrinsic noise and a rapidly changing driving variable, while indicators were calculated using sparsely sampled time series. All indicators performed poorly under these conditions, particularly during the beginning of the regime shift. Overall, the best performing indicator was a rise in variance. Future research should focus on methods for setting benchmark values of early warning indicators and for identifying indicators that work for sparsely sampled data sets.