River basins on the edge of change

River basins on the edge of change

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Summary

Ecological systems can switch into qualitatively different states after small perturbations (1). Climate change and anthropic activities are dominant drivers of such ecological shifts, which affect the ability of these systems to recover from future disturbance (2). Such finite resilience in complex and dynamic natural systems has been predicted and documented (3). However, whether abrupt transitions have occurred or will occur in the water cycle is an unsolved problem (4). The possibility for river basins to achieve thresholds at which tiny perturbations alter their state and lead to chronic water scarcity or excessive water bears substantial implications for the sustainable use of water resources in extreme climate conditions (5). On page 745 of this issue, Peterson et al. (6) demonstrate that river systems exhibit a finite resilience to perturbations and that climate may indeed drive river basins between alternative states.

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