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Regime shifts can abruptly affect hydrological, climatic and terrestrial systems, leading to degraded ecosystems and impoverished societies. While the frequency of regime shifts is predicted to increase, the fundamental relationships between the spatial-temporal scales of shifts and their underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Here we analyse empirical data from terrestrial (n = 4), marine (n = 25) and freshwater (n = 13) environments and show positive sub-linear empirical relationships between the size and shift duration of systems. Each additional unit area of an ecosystem provides an increasingly smaller unit of time taken for that system to collapse, meaning that large systems tend to shift more slowly than small systems but disproportionately faster. We substantiate these findings with five computational models that reveal the importance of system structure in controlling shift duration. The findings imply that shifts in Earth ecosystems occur over ‘human’ timescales of years and decades, meaning the collapse of large vulnerable ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest and Caribbean coral reefs, may take only a few decades once triggered.

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