While it is generally acknowledged that ecosystems are complex systems, it is appropriate to describe estuarine ecosystems in the context of the complex systems approach. Complexity as used here can be defined by
(1) the nonlinear relationships between components;
(2) the internal structure created by the connectivity between the subcomponents; (3) the persistence of the internal structure as a form of system memory; (4) the emergence or the capacity of a complex system to be greater than the sum of its parts; (5) the reality that complex systems constantly change and evolve in response to self-organization and dissipation; and (6) behaviors that often lead to multiple alternative states. Thus, estuarine ecosystems are open nonequilibrium systems that exchange matter and energy as well as information with terrestrial and marine ecosystems as well as internal subsystems. These exchanges not only connect various components, but are the essential elements of feedback loops that generate nonlinear behavior and the emergence of structures and behaviors whose sum is greater than the whole. These systems do exhibit alternate states, for example, Chesapeake Bay appears to have a benthic state dominated by oysters and a water column state dominated by plankton.
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