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Many biological, hydrological, and geological processes are interactively linked in ecosystems. These ecological phenomena normally vary within bounded ranges, but rapid, nonlinear changes to markedly different conditions can be triggered by even small differences if threshold values are exceeded. Intrinsic and extrinsic ecological thresholds can lead to effects that cascade among systems, precluding accurate modeling and prediction of system response to climate change. Ten case studies from North America illustrate how changes in climate can lead to rapid, threshold-type responses within ecological communities; the case studies also highlight the role of human activities that alter the rate or direction of system response to climate change. Understanding and anticipating nonlinear dynamics are important aspects of adaptation planning since responses of biological resources to changes in the physical climate system are not necessarily proportional and sometimes, as in the case of complex ecological systems, inherently nonlinear.
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Nonlinear dynamics in ecosystem response to climatic change: case studies and policy implications