Ecological structures and processes occur at specific spatiotemporal scales, and interactions that occur across multiple scales mediate scale-specific (e.g., individual, community, local, or regional) responses to disturbance. Despite the importance of scale, explicitly incorporating a multi-scale perspective into research and management actions remains a challenge. The discontinuity hypothesis provides a fertile avenue for addressing this problem by linking measureable proxies to inherent scales of structure within ecosystems. Here we outline the conceptual framework underlying discontinuities and review the evidence supporting the discontinuity hypothesis in ecological systems. Next we explore the utility of this approach for understanding cross-scale patterns and the organization of ecosystems by describing recent advances for examining nonlinear responses to disturbance and phenomena such as extinctions, invasions, and resilience. To stimulate new research, we present methods for performing discontinuity analysis, detail outstanding knowledge gaps, and discuss potential approaches for addressing these gaps.