Predicting the future trajectories of ecological systems is increasingly important as the magnitude of anthropogenic perturbation of the earth systems grows.We distinguish between two types of predictability: the intrinsic or theoretical predictability of a system and the realized predictability that is achieved using available models and parameterizations. We contend that there are strong limits on the intrinsic predictability of ecological systems that arise from inherent characteristics of biological systems. While the realized predictability of ecological systems can be limited by process and parameter misspecification or uncertainty, we argue that the intrinsic predictability of ecological systems is widely and strongly limited by computational irreducibility. When realized predictability is low relative to intrinsic predictability, prediction can be improved through improved model structure or specification of parameters. Computational irreducibility, however, asserts that future states of the system cannot be derived except through computation of all of the intervening states, imposing a strong limit on the intrinsic or theoretical predictability. We argue that ecological systems are likely to be computationally irreducible because of the difficulty of pre-stating the relevant features of ecological niches, the complexity of ecological systems and because the biosphere can enable its own novel system states or adjacent possible. We argue that computational irreducibility is likely to be pervasive and to impose strong limits on the potential for prediction in ecology. Copyright:
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© 2011 Beckage et al.
Beckage B, Gross LJ, Kauffman S. The limits to prediction in ecological systems. Ecosphere. 2011 Nov;2(11):1-2.