Mechanisms and consequences of tipping points in lowland agricultural landscapes

Lead Research Organisation: Bournemouth University
Department Name: Faculty of Science and Technology

Abstract

Ecosystems provide a number of benefits to people, including food and timber production, areas for recreation, pollination of crops, fresh water, and the storage of carbon, which can help reduce the risk of climate change. People also benefit from wildlife, including both plant and animal species, both in terms of their aesthetic value, and from the functional role that such species play in the ecosystems of which they are a part. Many ecosystems in the UK, as in many other parts of the world, are currently at risk because of the combined effects of climate change, aerial pollution, changing patterns of land use and other forms of human disturbance. These factors can interact with each other, leading to major changes in ecosystems, which can affect their ability to provide benefits to people. Research is needed to identify which ecosystems are at risk of rapid transitions occurring, so that appropriate management and policy responses can be identified. Information is also needed on the potential impacts of such ecosystem "tipping points" on humans, through changes in the provision of ecosystem benefits. This project aims to provide this information, by studying the landscapes of Dorset, a southern English county. Here we will examine data that have been collected over a period of 80 years in a variety of different types of ecosystem, to analyse the changes that have occurred. We will use this information to see whether any tipping points have occurred in the past, or might occur in the future, which could affect human society. We will also study tipping points by comparing ecosystems along gradients of environmental degradation. In addition, we will explore whether the environmental degradation that has already happened in Dorset, or might happen in future, could affect employment and prospects for economic development. We will test the idea that factors such as climate change, aerial pollution and land use change could cause a tipping point in ecosystems, which could have major economic consequences. We will achieve this using a combination of field data and computer models, which we will use to forecast how such impacts might occur at the landscape scale. The project will help increase understanding of how major ecological changes occur in agricultural landscapes typical of much of the UK, and their potential impacts. This information will be of value for identifying which ecosystems are particularly at risk of tipping points, what are the processes that cause such tipping points, and what the implications of them might be for human society. We will also examine how such problems might be averted in future, through the development of appropriate management and policy responses.

Planned Impact

We identify the following potential users of this research, together with the benefits to be provided to each user group by this project. (i) Academic community, both in the UK and at the global scale. The project is particularly relevant to the interests of conservation ecologists, environmental scientists, community ecologists, ecosystem scientists, landscape ecologists, economists and geographers. These researchers will benefit from new knowledge generated and scientific advancement on a topic of global importance; and the development and implementation new methodologies, specifically relating to spatially explicit models of ecosystem service dynamics to understand the mechanisms and consequences of tipping points in ecosystem benefits. The project will also help develop expertise and strengthen research capacity in the developing multi-disciplinary area of ecosystem service science, through training of highly skilled researchers and through participation in the Valuing Nature programme. (ii) Public Sector organisations, including policy-makers, government agencies and regulators. The project will contribute towards evidence based policy-making and influencing public policies and legislation at local, regional, national and international scales. Policy makers at the international and national scales will benefit from new knowledge on the likelihood of tipping points occurring in lowland landscapes, and their potential impacts on provision of ecosystem services, economic development and human wellbeing. The research will also provide evidence of the links between biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services. Results will have implications for identifying how agricultural landscapes can be managed effectively to achieve resilience under conditions of environmental change. Information on the functional importance of ecosystems will also help inform the prioritisation of conservation and management actions, such as ecological restoration. At the local scale, the project will help support the effective management of ecosystems in Dorset, an area of exceptional importance to the natural heritage of the UK. (iii) Private sector, particularly those businesses that are highly dependent on natural capital, such as agricultural and forest industries, and the tourism industry. The project will identify how tipping points in ecosystems can occur, and provide guidance on assessing the likelihood of such events. This has practical implications for the sustainable management and monitoring of ecosystems, including risk analysis and business planning, and for achieving corporate and social responsibility targets. The project has significant economic implications, as ecosystem tipping points could potentially threaten the long term viability of the UK economy. (iv) Third sector organisations, particularly conservation NGOs and CSOs with an interest in biodiversity conservation and management, and their use for recreation and amenity. The project will provide evidence of the importance of conserving biodiversity for the provision of ecosystem services, and will identify how biodiversity may be threatened by environmental change as a result of positive feedbacks and thresholds. (v) General public. Rural landscapes are of exceptional importance as a source of cultural enrichment, quality of life, health and well-being. The research will identify how such benefits may be threatened by environmental change, thereby increasing societal awareness of the importance of natural capital, and strengthening societal engagement in conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development.
 
Title Sonification of tipping points project (TPAL) 
Description The project 'Sonification of tipping points' is funded by Bournemouth University (BU) as a way of integrating science and art practices. This is a collaborative venture between the Valuing Nature Programme TPAL (Mechanisms and Consequences of Tipping Points in Lowland Agricultural Landscapes) and the Centre for Games and Music Technology Research at BU. The piece features field recordings made throughout the year of Dorset ecosystems currently undergoing degradation, specifically woodlands and grasslands in this case. You can also hear interactions with people, as all of the recordings were made in places used by people for recreation. The sounds were processed using software and hardware tools that apply the mathematical processes that are the same as those used to study tipping points in nature. These included a software program that subjects an audio stream to a chaotic feedback process, using a Lorenz attractor, which essentially shifts the audio from one sonic state to another representing the cyclical dynamics of a grassland or woodland ecosystem. This was employed to sonically represent the feedback processes that drive tipping points in ecosystems. In addition, the source materials were processed using modular hardware, which again employs different mathematical representations of dynamical systems to generate fluctuating control voltages. These were used to modulate a resonating filter, through which the audio was passed. Again this provides a way of sonifying multiple states in a system, and the transition between them through a tipping point as a result of feedback, but this time the feedback processes occur in the control voltages rather than in the audio directly. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact This is an example sound file produced by a work in progress. The ultimate goal is to develop a combined hardware / software installation, which will trigger feedback processes leading to tipping points when a person enters the installation space. We hope to complete this early in 2019. 
 
Description Key results are summarized below:

• Dorset's environment has been seriously degraded over the past 80 years. Measures of biodiversity value have undergone a substantial decline in this period, as illustrated by the 97% loss of neutral grassland and 70% loss of calcareous grassland. The condition of remaining semi-natural habitats has been reduced by nitrogen deposition and habitat fragmentation; for example the mean area of heathland patches has declined by 29% since 1978. These trends are primarily attributable to agricultural intensification and changing farming practices.

• Provision of most ecosystem services, or the benefits provided by ecosystems to people, has declined significantly since the 1930s. Some services, such as soil quality and carbon storage, have declined continuously over this interval, with no sign of recovery. Others, such as mitigation of flood risk, have increased in recent years owing to changing land use, particularly the transition from arable to livestock farming that occurred over large areas after the 1950s.

• The provision of ecosystem services is important to local businesses. Overall, 47% of the Dorset businesses surveyed stated that they were at least somewhat dependent on service flows. Economic sectors that were highly dependent on ecosystem services included tourism and travel, manufacturing, education and agriculture. The most important services to businesses were provision of freshwater, waste and water treatment, microclimate regulation, water quality and carbon storage.

• Economic analyses indicate that the further intensification of agriculture would provide limited benefits to the local economy. Even if all remaining land in Dorset that is suitable for agriculture were converted to farmland, GVA would increase by = 0.3%. However, investment in natural capital, aiming to improve the extent and condition of semi-natural ecosystems, could have a much greater impact on the economy, with GVA increases of up to 5% in the scenarios explored. Such investment could deliver an £0.8 billion increase in GVA and create more than 25,000 jobs.

• Rural land use can significantly affect the wider economy by influencing the provision of ecosystem services to other business sectors. This influence of farming on the wider economy is ignored by conventional approaches to economic forecasting, but can substantially outweigh the value of the agricultural sector itself.

• We detected a number of ecological thresholds in relation to the status of natural capital assets. These suggest that future environmental degradation could lead to relatively abrupt changes in provision of ecosystem services, which could have a significant impact on the local economy and employment. Investment in natural capital could help mitigate these risks.

• Recommendations are provided regarding policy and management options for strengthening natural capital in the region, while supporting incomes to farmers.
Exploitation Route Recommendations
• Invest in natural capital, by enhancing ecosystem condition and by increasing the area of semi-natural habitats of high conservation value. Such investment would provide direct benefits to businesses, support economic growth and increase employment, while also providing wider benefits to society and to the environment.

• Develop policies aimed at providing incentives for farmers to produce environmental goods and services. Evidence indicates that this would provide greater benefits to the economy than increased production of traditional agricultural products.

• Incorporate the value of ecosystem services provided by rural land use in economic analysis and forecasting approaches. The value of these services to the broader economy can potentially exceed the economic value of the agricultural sector itself.

• Use land use approaches that improve the condition and extent of semi-natural habitats to strengthen the provision of ecosystem services, including wildlife-friendly farming approaches, organic approaches to pest control and soil improvement, ecological restoration, habitat enhancement schemes and maintenance of habitat diversity.

• Reduce nitrogen deposition. There is an urgent need to improve the condition of semi-natural ecosystems in agricultural landscapes such as Dorset. Initiatives designed to help farmers reduce nitrogen applications, such as the Code of Good Agricultural Practice for Reducing Ammonia Emissions , should be strongly supported.

• Develop and implement plans for large-scale habitat creation and restoration. Environmental degradation can lead to abrupt changes in the provision of ecosystem services, which could negatively affect the economy and wider society. The risks of such abrupt changes occurring are likely to intensify with increasing climate change. Approaches aiming to increase the extent and condition of semi-natural habitats, such as ecological restoration, rewilding and development of ecological networks, would help mitigate these risks.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

URL https://valuing-nature.net/sites/default/files/documents/Reports/DorsetNatCapTrendsReport.pdf
 
Description The most direct impact was to inform the development of the strategic plan developed by the Local Enterprise Partnership in Dorset. The research project was explicitly designed to contribute to the LEP's deliberations on the economic development strategy in the county. As an output of the project, we produced a report summarizing research findings and policy recommendations that was targeted primarily at the LEP. As a direct result, the LEP's new strategic plan now - for the first time - includes a funding stream for investment in natural capital in Dorset. This was one of the main recommendations in our report. We know that our report was fed into the consultation process on which the strategic plan was based, so we are confident that the outcome was at least partly based on the results of our research. Recently the report has also been heavily cited in a new plan for the area that has been developed focusing on how to achieve "net zero" ("Zero Carbon Dorset"), and in efforts to develop a new land use strategy for the area.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Title TPAL research tools 
Description We developed computer models for (i) simulating the impact of environmental change on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services in lowland agricultural systems . These were based on the InVEST model and an agent based model, written in the Netlogo language. Once calibrated and tested, the ABM will be used to conduct a series of experiments to examine the mechanisms and consequences of tipping points. These will systematically vary the status of different natural capital assets by varying their quantity, quality and spatial configuration, enabling their impact on benefit flows, economic growth and employment to be observed. This will enable critical levels of natural capital assets for avoiding tipping points in benefit delivery to be identified. Using the ABM, we will test the hypothesis that ongoing environmental degradation, coupled with future climate change, will lead to a threshold being crossed that will have a major impact on economic development 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None yet 
 
Title TPAL reaserch database 
Description We have compiled a database of original field and laboratory data collected during this project, which will be made publicly available. Project outputs will include: (i) spatial database incorporating measures of natural asset condition, ecosystem services and benefit values for Dorset; (ii) analyses of long-term datasets to determine the occurrence and impacts of tipping points; (iii) field data describing asset condition and benefit provision along multiple gradients within Dorset; (iv) spatially explicit model of natural asset and ecosystem service dynamics parameterised and calibrated, to enable the impacts of tipping points to be evaluated; (v) scenarios developed of the potential impacts of land use decisions on the occurrence of tipping points, and of the potential impacts of tipping points on the local economy. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None yet 
 
Description TPAL partners 
Organisation UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution All research activities on this project are undertaken in partnership
Collaborator Contribution Field data collection, data management, data analysis, report writing, coauthorship of publications
Impact None
Start Year 2016
 
Description Defra seminar on Valuing Nature Tipping Points projects 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Discussion with DEFRA about TPAL model suitability approaches
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Exploring Horizons for Dorset's Natural Capital- TPAL Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A one day conference to explore natural capital as an emerging concept in the currently dynamic area of conservation and environmental management.  The event focused on the landscapes of Dorset and included a morning of talks followed by an afternoon of interactive workshops.

Participatory workshops were used to inform future modelling activities including: InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs):  biophysical model linking natural capital and the environment and DONC: Agent based model linking natural capital to the economy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services and the Future of Farming in Dorset 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact This meeting will explore the future of farming in Dorset and its association with natural capital and ecosystem services by bringing together researchers, practitioners and local conservation groups.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description TPAL website and social media 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In terms of the general public, we developed a project website, that was designed explicitly to communicate research results to a general audience.This was supported by an on-line media campaign using the social media site twitter.

We also used web 2.0 technologies to enable crowdsourcing of research data. To eliciting natural capital benefit values from business, we used an on-line survey constructed using Google Forms.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/5/1368
 
Description TPAL- Local Nature Partnership meetings 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A series of meetings have taken place between the project and the LNP about collaborative efforts.

TPAL work was discussed at LNP workshop including how it could contribute to the '2020 AONB management plan for Dorset.

LNP have been co-sponsors in TPAL workshops
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
 
Description Valuing Nature Programme working group - Tipping points projects 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Series of workshops and meetings with members of the Valuing Nature Tipping points projects. Aim to understand the Guiding Question: How do we usefully apply the theory and methods of tipping points to ecosystem services?

Postdoctoral working group established to write a high impact paper based on workshop discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017