A probabilistic framework for windows of opportunity: the role of temporal variability in critical transitions

Jim van Belzen, Gregory S. Fivash, Zhan Hu, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Peter M.J. Herman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The establishment of young organisms in harsh environments often requires a window of opportunity (WoO). That is, a short time window in which environmental conditions drop long enough below the hostile average level, giving the organism time to develop tolerance and transition into stable existence. It has been suggested that this kind of establishment dynamics is a noise-induced transition between two alternate states. Understanding how temporal variability (i.e. noise) in environmental conditions affects establishment of organisms is therefore key, yet not well understood or included explicitly in the WoO framework. In this paper, we develop a coherent theoretical framework for understanding when the WoO open or close based on simple dichotomous environmental variation. We reveal that understanding of the intrinsic timescales of both the developing organism and the environment is fundamental to predict if organisms can or cannot establish. These insights have allowed us to develop statistical laws for predicting establishment probabilities based on the period and variance of the fluctuations in naturally variable environments. Based on this framework, we now get a clear understanding of how changes in the timing and magnitude of climate variability or management can mediate establishment chances.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20220041
Pages (from-to)1-10
JournalJournal of the Royal Society, Interface
Issue number190
Publication statusPublished - May 2022


  • critical transitions
  • establishment
  • noise-induced transition
  • population and community dynamics
  • stable state
  • temporal variability


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