This research presents seagrass meadows as an example of an ecosystem that seems to disappear suddenly, but actually reached a tipping point caused by chronic pollution.
Ecological systems can be dynamic and unpredictable, with shifts from one ecosystem state to another often considered ‘surprising’. This unpredictability is often thought to be due to ecological thresholds, where small cumulative increases in an environmental stressor drives a much greater consequence than would be predicted from linear effects, suggesting an unforeseen tipping point is crossed. In coastal waters, broad-scale seagrass loss often occurs as a sudden event which is associated with human-driven nutrient enrichment (eutrophication). We tested whether the response of seagrass ecosystems to coastal nutrient enrichment represents a threshold effect. Seagrass response did follow a threshold pattern when nutrient enrichment (dissolved inorganic nitrogen) exceeded moderate levels, with a switch from positive to negative net leaf production. Epiphyte load also increased with nutrient enrichment, potentially driving this shift. Inadvertently crossing such thresholds, as can occur through ineffective management of land-derived inputs such as wastewater and stormwater on urbanised coasts, may help account for the widely observed ‘sudden’ loss of seagrass meadows. By identifying tipping points we may not only improve monitoring for adaptive management that seeks to avoid threshold effects, but also the restoration of systems that have crossed them.