Cascading effects: insights from the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research Network

Christie A. Bahlai, Clarisse Hart, Maria T. Kavanaugh, Jeffrey D. White, Roger W. Ruess, Todd J. Brinkman, Hugh W. Ducklow, David R. Foster, William R. Fraser, Hélène Genet, Peter M. Groffman, Stephen K. Hamilton, Jill F. Johnstone, Knut Kielland, Douglas A. Landis, Michelle C. Mack, Orlando Sarnelle, Jonathan R. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Ecosystems across the United States are changing in complex and unpredictable ways and analysis of these changes requires coordinated, long-term research. This paper is a product of a synthesis effort of the U.S. National Science Foundation funded Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network addressing the LTER core research area of “populations and communities.” This analysis revealed that each LTER site had at least one compelling “story” about what their site would look like in 50–100 yr. As the stories were prepared, themes emerged, and the stories were group into papers along five themes: state change, connectivity, resilience, time lags, and cascading effects. This paper addresses the cascading effects theme and includes stories from the Bonanza Creek (boreal), Kellogg Biological Station (agricultural and freshwater), Palmer (Antarctica), and Harvard Forest (temperate forest) LTER sites. We define cascading effects very broadly to include a wide array of unforeseen chains of events that result from a variety of actions or changes in a system. While climate change is having important direct effects on boreal forests, indirect effects mediated by fire activity—severity, size, and return interval—have large cascading effects over the long term. In northeastern temperate forests, legacies of human management and disturbance affect the composition of current forests, which creates a cascade of effects that interact with the climate-facilitated invasion of an exotic pest. In Antarctica, declining sea ice creates a cascade of effects including declines in Adèlie and increases in Gentoo penguins, changes in phytoplankton, and consequent changes in zooplankton populations. An invasion of an exotic species of lady beetle is likely to have important future effects on pest control and conservation of native species in agricultural landscapes. New studies of zebra mussels, a well-studied invader, have established links between climate, the heat tolerance of the mussels, and harmful algal blooms. Collectively, these stories highlight the need for long-term studies to sort out the complexities of different types of ecological cascades. The diversity of sites within the LTER network facilitates the emergence of overarching concepts about trophic interactions as an important driver of ecosystem structure, function, services, and futures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03430
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Antarctica
  • Special Feature: Forecasting Earth’s Ecosystems with Long-Term Ecological Research
  • agriculture
  • boreal forest
  • fire
  • forests
  • lady bugs
  • lakes
  • land use
  • penguins
  • zebra mussels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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