Early warnings of catastrophe

Catastrophic Collapse Can Occur without Early Warning: Examples of Silent Catastrophes in Structured Ecological Models (PLOS ONE – open access)

Catastrophic and sudden collapses of ecosystems are sometimes preceded by early warning signals that potentially could be used to predict and prevent a forthcoming catastrophe. Universality of these early warning signals has been proposed, but no formal proof has been provided. Here, we show that in relatively simple ecological models the most commonly used early warning signals for a catastrophic collapse can be silent. We underpin the mathematical reason for this phenomenon, which involves the direction of the eigenvectors of the system. Our results demonstrate that claims on the universality of early warning signals are not correct, and that catastrophic collapses can occur without prior warning. In order to correctly predict a collapse and determine whether early warning signals precede the collapse, detailed knowledge of the mathematical structure of the approaching bifurcation is necessary. Unfortunately, such knowledge is often only obtained after the collapse has already occurred.

This is a third-order ecological model with juvenile and adult prey and a predator:

See my related blog post on the topic, in which I also mention a generic model of critical slowing down.

The model, with changes files (.cin) implementing some of the experiments: CatastropheWarning.zip

Forest Cover Tipping Points

This is a model of forest stability and transitions, inspired by:

Global Resilience of Tropical Forest and Savanna to Critical Transitions

Marina Hirota, Milena Holmgren, Egbert H. Van Nes, Marten Scheffer

It has been suggested that tropical forest and savanna could represent alternative stable states, implying critical transitions at tipping points in response to altered climate or other drivers. So far, evidence for this idea has remained elusive, and integrated climate models assume smooth vegetation responses. We analyzed data on the distribution of tree cover in Africa, Australia, and South America to reveal strong evidence for the existence of three distinct attractors: forest, savanna, and a treeless state. Empirical reconstruction of the basins of attraction indicates that the resilience of the states varies in a universal way with precipitation. These results allow the identification of regions where forest or savanna may most easily tip into an alternative state, and they pave the way to a new generation of coupled climate models.

The paper is worth a read. It doesn’t present an explicit simulation model, but it does describe the concept nicely. I built the following toy model as a loose interpretation of the dynamics.

Some things to try:

Use a Synthesim override to replace Forest Cover with a ramp from 0 to 1 to see potentials and vector fields (rates of change), then vary the precipitation index to see how the stability of the forest, savanna and treeless states changes:

Start the system at different levels of forest cover (varying init forest cover), with default precipitation, to see the three stable attractors at zero trees, savanna (20% tree cover) and forest (90% tree cover):

Start with a stable forest, and a bit of noise (noise sd = .2 to .3), then gradually reduce precipitation (override the precipitation index with a ramp from 1 to 0) to see abrupt transitions in state:

There’s a more detailed discussion on my blog.

forest savanna treeless 1f.mdl (requires an advanced version of Vensim, or the free Model Reader)

forest savanna treeless 1f.vpm (ditto; includes a sensitivity file for varying the initial forest cover)

Bifurcations from Strogatz’ Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos

The following models are replicated from Steven Strogatz’ excellent text, Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos.

These are just a few of the many models in the text. They illustrate bifurcations in one-dimensional systems (saddle node, transcritical, pitchfork) and one two-dimensional system (Hopf). The pitchfork bifurcation is closely related to the cusp catastrophe in the climate model recently posted.

Spiral from a point near the unstable fixed point at the origin to a stable limit cycle after a Hopf bifurcation (mu=.075, r0 = .025)

These are in support of an upcoming post on bifurcations and tipping points, so I won’t say more at the moment. I encourage you to read the book. If you replicate more of the models in it, I’d love to have copies here.

These are systems in normal form and therefore dimensionless and lacking in physical interpretation, though they certainly crop up in many real-world systems.

3-1 saddle node bifurcation.mdl

3-2 transcritical bifurcation.mdl

3-4 pitchfork bifurcation.mdl

8.2 Hopf bifurcation.mdl

Update: A related generic model illustrating critical slowing down:

critical slowing.mdl

Gumowski-Mira Attractor

I became aware of this neat model via the Vensim forum. I have no idea what the physical basis is, but the diverse and beautiful output it generates is quite amazing.

Interestingly, if you only looked at time series of this sequence, you’d probably never notice it.

This runs in any version of Vensim. gumowski mira.mdl

A note on the bathtub analogy

Adapted from “A note on the bathtub analogy,” Pål Davidsen, Erling Moxnes, Mauricio Munera Sánchez, David Wheat, 2011 System Dynamics Conference.


The bathtub analogy has been used extensively to illustrate stock and flow relationships. Because this analogy is frequently used, System Dynamicists should be aware that the natural outflow of water from a bathtub is a nonlinear function of water volume. A questionnaire suggests that students with one year or more of System Dynamics training tend to assume a linear relationship when asked to model a water outflow driven by gravity. We present Torricelli’s law for the outflow and investigate the error caused by assuming linearity. We also construct an “inverted funnel” which does behave like a linear system. We conclude by pointing out that the nonlinearity is of no importance for the usefulness of bathtubs or funnels as analogies. On the other hand, simplified analogies could make modellers overconfident in linear formulations and not able to address critical remarks from physicists or other specialists.

See my related blog post for details.

Units balance.

Runs in Vensim (any version): ToricelliBathtub.mdl ToricelliBathtub.vpm

A System Zoo

I just picked up a copy of Hartmut Bossel’s excellent System Zoo 1, which I’d seen years ago in German, but only recently discovered in English. This is the first of a series of books on modeling – it covers simple systems (integration, exponential growth and decay), logistic growth and variants, oscillations and chaos, and some interesting engineering systems (heat flow, gliders searching for thermals). These are high quality models, with units that balance, well-documented by the book. Every one I’ve tried runs in Vensim PLE so they’re great for teaching.

I haven’t had a chance to work my way through the System Zoo 2 (natural systems – climate, ecosystems, resources) and System Zoo 3 (economy, society, development), but I’m pretty confident that they’re equally interesting.

You can get the models for all three books, in English, from the Uni Kassel Center for Environmental Systems Research, http://www.usf.uni-kassel.de/cesr/. Follow the Archiv(e) link on the home page and enter the downloads Archiv(e). This will put you in a file browser. Choose the Software folder, then the Zoo folder to obtain a .zip archive of the zoo models for the whole series, in Vensim .mdl format.

To tantalize you, here are some images of model output from Zoo 1. First, a phase map of a bistable oscillator, which was so interesting that I built one with my kids, using legos and neodymium magnets:

Continue reading “A System Zoo”

Delay Sandbox

There’s a handy rule of thumb for estimating how much of the input to a first order delay has propagated through as output: after three time constants, 95%. (This is the same as the rule for estimating how much material has left a stock that is decaying exponentially – about a 2/3 after one lifetime, 85% after two, 95% after three, and 99% after five lifetimes.)

I recently wanted rules of thumb for other delay structures (third order or higher), so I built myself a simple model to facilitate playing with delays. It uses Vensim’s DELAY N function, to make it easy to change the delay order.

Here’s the structure:

Continue reading “Delay Sandbox”

Fibonacci Rabbits

This is a small, discrete time model that explores the physical interpretation of the Fibonacci sequence. See my blog post about this model for details.

Fibonacci2.vpm This runs with Vensim PLE, but users might want to use the Model Reader in order to load the included .cin file with non-growing eigenvector settings.

Oscillation from a purely positive loop

Replicated by Mohammad Mojtahedzadeh from Alan Graham’s thesis, or created anew with the same inspiration. He created these models in the course of his thesis work on structural analysis through pathway participation matrices.

Alan Graham, 1977. Principles on the Relationship Between Structure and Behavior of Dynamic Systems. MIT Thesis. Page 76+

These models are pure positive feedback loops that don’t exhibit exponential growth (under the right initial conditions). See my blog post for a discussion of the details.

These are generic models, and therefore don’t have units. All should run with Vensim PLE, except the generic gain matrix version which uses arrays and therefore requires an advanced version or the Model Reader.

The original 4th order model, replicated from Alan’s thesis: PurePosOscill4.vpm – note that this includes a .cin file with an alternate stable initialization.

My slightly modified version, permitting initialization with different gains at each level: PurePosOscill4alt.vpm

Loops of different orders: 3.vpm 6.vpm 8.vpm 12.vpm (I haven’t spent much time with these. It appears that the high-order versions transition to growth rather quickly – my guess is that this is an artifact of numerical precision, i.e. any tiny imprecision in the initialization introduces a bit of the growth eigenvector, which quickly swamps the oscillatory signal. It would be interesting to try these in double precision Vensim to see if I’m right.)

Stable initializations: 2stab.vpm 12stab.vpm

A generic version, representing a system as a generic gain matrix, so you can use it to explore any linear unforced variant: Generic.vpm