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Complexity theory predicts that local feedback processes may strongly affect the organization of ecosystems on larger spatial scales. Whether complexity leads to increased resilience and stability or to increased vulnerability and criticality remains one of the dominant questions in ecology. We present a combined theoretical and empirical study of complex dynamics in mineralogenic salt marsh ecosystems that emerge from a positive feedback between clay accumulation and plant growth. Positive feedback induces self-organizing within the ecosystem, which buffers for the strong physical gradient that characterizes the marine-terrestrial boundary, and improves plant growth along the gradient. However, as a consequence of these self-organizing properties, salt marshes approach a critical state as the edge of the salt marsh and the adjacent intertidal flat becomes increasingly steep and vulnerable to wave attack. Disturbance caused, for instance, by a storm may induce a cascade of vegetation collapse and severe erosion on the cliff edge, leading to salt marsh destruction. Our study shows that on short timescales, self-organization improves the functioning of salt marsh ecosystems. On long timescales, however, self-organization may lead to destruction of salt marsh vegetation. [KEYWORDS: emergence ; positive feedback ; salt marsh development ; self-organization]
Original languageEnglish
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Journal publication date2005

ID: 333426