Tipping points in the climate system

A tipping point in the climate system is a threshold that, when exceeded, leads to large and often irreversible changes in the state of the system. Tipping points have been identified in the physical climate system and in ecosystems, which will have severe impacts on humans when crossed.[2]

Possible tipping elements in the climate system.
Interactions of climate tipping points (bottom) with associated tipping points in the socioeconomic system (top) on different time scales.[1]

Tipping points may be crossed even at a moderate increase of global temperature of 1.5–2 °C (2.7–3.6 °F) over pre-industrial times, due to current global warming.[3] Climate scientists have identified over a dozen possible tipping points.[4][5] If the tipping point in one system is crossed, this could lead to a cascade of other tipping points. One of these cascades could take the world into a greenhouse Earth state 4 or 5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.[6][7]

Large-scale components of the Earth system that may pass a tipping point have been referred to as tipping elements.[8] Tipping elements are found in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, possibly causing tens of meters of sea level rise. These tipping points are not always abrupt. For example, at some level of temperature rise the melt of a large part of the Greenland ice sheet and/or West Antarctic Ice Sheet will become inevitable; but the ice sheet itself may persist for many centuries.[9] Some tipping elements, like the collapse of ecosystems, are permanently irreversible.[2]

DefinitionEdit

Many positive and negative climate change feedbacks to global temperatures and the carbon cycle have been identified. For thousands of years, these feedback processes have mostly interacted to restore the system back to its previous steady state. If one component of the system starts to take significantly longer to return to its 'normal state', this may be a warning sign the system is approaching its tipping point.[10][11] What these different components in the system have in common is that once a tipping point is passed, and collapse has started, stopping it becomes virtually impossible.[4]

The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019 defines a tipping point as:

A level of change in system properties beyond which a system reorganises, often in a non-linear manner, and does not return to the initial state even if the drivers of the change are abated. For the climate system, the term refers to a critical threshold at which global or regional climate changes from one stable state to another stable state. Tipping points are also used when referring to impact: the term can imply that an impact tipping point is (about to be) reached in a natural or human system.[12]

Tipping points lead to changes in the climate system which are irreversible on a human timescale. For any particular climate component, the shift from one seemingly stable state to a less stable state may take many decades or centuries - although Palaeoclimate data and global climate models, suggest that the "climate system may abruptly 'tip' from one regime to another in a comparatively short time."[13]

Observable early warning signalsEdit

A sign that a complex system such as the climate is approaching a tipping point is when aspects of the system start to flicker or demonstrate rising volatility.[14] Environmentalist and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot says the extreme weather in 2021 – the heat domes, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones – is evidence of increased volatility and indicates the earth is closer to tipping points than we realise.[15] Analysing extreme rainfall events and recent heat waves that have shattered temperature records by 10 degrees Fahrenheit, Nature Climate Change calculates that such heat waves are up to seven times more likely to occur in the next three decades.[16]

Tipping point temperaturesEdit

The geologic record of temperature and greenhouse gas concentration allows climate scientists to gather information on climate feedbacks that lead to different climate states. A key finding is that when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up, the average global temperature goes up with it.[17] In the last 100 million years, global temperatures have peaked twice, tipping the climate into a hothouse state. During the Cretaceous period, roughly 92 million years ago, CO
2
levels were around 1,000 ppm.[6] The climate was so hot that crocodile-like reptiles lived in what is now the Canadian Arctic, and forests thrived near the South Pole. The second hot house period was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55-56 million years ago. Records suggest that during the PETM, the average global temperature rose between 5 and 8 °C; there was no ice at the poles, allowing palm trees and crocodiles to live above the Arctic Circle.[18]

Combining this historical information with the understanding of current climate change resulted in the finding published in 2018 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that "a 2 °C warming could activate important tipping elements, raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures".[6][19]

The speed of tipping point feedbacks is a critical concern although the geologic record fails to provide clarity as to whether past temperature changes have taken only a few decades or many millennia. Some scientists are concerned that some tipping points may have already been reached.[20] The greatest threat is from rising sea levels[21] and a 2018 study found that tipping points for the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will likely occur between 1.5 and 2 °C of warming. The authors of the study point out that in 2021, the Earth has already warmed by 1.2 °C, and 1.5 °C of warming may be less than 15 years away. Based on current projections, experts say at least 20 feet / 6 meters of sea-level rise is inevitable.[22] The speed at which this will occur is uncertain; it may take centuries or millennia.[23]

Mathematical theoryEdit

Tipping point behaviour in the climate can be described in mathematical terms. Tipping points are then seen as any type of bifurcation with hysteresis,[24][25] which is the dependence of the state of a system on its history. For instance, depending on how warm or cold it was in the past, there can be differing amounts of ice on the poles at the same concentration of greenhouse gases or temperature.[26] In a 2012 study inspired by "mathematical and statistical approaches to climate modelling and prediction", the authors identify three types of tipping points in open systems such as the climate system—bifurcation, noise-induced and rate-dependent.[13]

TypesEdit

Bifurcation-induced tippingEdit

This occurs when a particular parameter in the climate, which is observed to be consistently moving in a given direction over a period of time, eventually passes through a critical level - at which point a dangerous bifurcation, or fork takes place - and what was a stable state loses its stability or simply disappears.[27] The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is like a conveyor belt driven by thermohaline circulation. Slow changes to the bifurcation parameters in this system — the salinity, temperature and density of the water - have caused circulation to slow down by about 15% in the last 70 years or so. If it reaches a critical point where it stops completely, this would be an example of bifurcation induced tipping.[28][29]

Noise-induced tippingEdit

This refers to transitions from one state to another due to random fluctuations or internal variability of the system. Noise-induced transitions show none of the early warning signals which occur with bifurcations. This means they are fundamentally unpredictable as there is no systematic change in the underlying parameters. Because they are unpredictable, such occurrences are often described as a ‘one-in-x-year’ event.[30] An example is the Dansgaard–Oeschger events during the last glacial period, with 25 occurrences of sudden climate fluctuations over a 500 year period.[31]

Rate-induced tippingEdit

This aspect of tipping assumes that there is a unique, stable state for any fixed aspect or parameter of the climate and that, if left undisturbed, there will only be small responses to a ‘small’ stimulus. However, when changes in one of the system parameters begin to occur more rapidly, a very large 'excitable' response may appear. In the case of peatlands, for instance, after years of relative stability, the rate-induced tipping point leads to an "explosive release of soil carbon from peatlands into the atmosphere" - sometimes known as "compost bomb instability".[32][33]

Mathematical early warning signalsEdit

For tipping points that occur because of a bifurcation, it may be possible to detect whether they are getting closer to a tipping point, as the system is getting less resilient to perturbations on approach of the tipping threshold. These systems display critical slowing down, with an increased memory (rising autocorrelation) and variance. Depending on the nature of the tipping system, changes may also be detected in the skewness and kurtosis of time series of relevant variables, with asymmetries in the distributions of anomolies indicating that tipping may be close.[34][10] Abrupt change is not an early warning signal (EWS) for tipping points, as abrupt change can also occur if the changes are reversible to the control parameter.[35][36]

These EWSs are often developed and tested using time series from the paleorecord, like sediments, ice caps, and tree rings, where past examples of tipping can be observed.[34][37] It is not always possible to say whether increased variance and autocorrelation is a precursor to tipping, or caused by internal variability, for instance in the case of the collapse of the AMOC.[37] Quality limitations of paleodata further complicate the development of EWSs.[37] They have been developed for detecting tipping due to drought in forests in California,[38] the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica,[36] among other systems. Using early warning signals (increased autocorrelation and variance of the melt rate time series), it has been suggested that the Greenland ice sheet is currently losing resilience, consistent with modelled early warning signals of the ice sheet.[39]

Public opinionEdit

In April and May 2021, Ipsos Mori conducted an opinion survey in the G20 nations on behalf of the Global Commons Alliance (GCA) about the impact of global warming. The results, published in August 2021, found 74% of those surveyed believe "humanity is pushing the planet towards a dangerous tipping point" and wanted to see wealthy nations help regenerate the global commons rather than focus on economic profit. This survey was conducted before the northern hemisphere summer of 2021 which saw record-breaking heatwaves, floods and fires, and before the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned of “inevitable and irreversible” climate change directly attributable to human activity.[40]

Tipping elementsEdit

Scientists have identified a large set of elements which have the potential to become tipping points.[4] It is possible that some tipping points are close to being crossed or have already been crossed, like the ice sheets in West Antarctic and Greenland, warm-water coral reefs, and the Amazon rainforest.[41][42]

Large-scale tipping elementsEdit

A smooth or abrupt change in temperature can trigger global-scale tipping points. A 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned that if polar ice continues to melt, forests are decimated and greenhouse gases continue to rise to new levels, tipping points will be passed that guarantee a climate 4-5 Celsius higher than pre-industrial times, and sea levels 10 to 60 meters (30–200 feet) higher than today.[43]

Shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning CirculationEdit

The AMOC is also known as the Gulf Stream System. Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says: "The Gulf Stream System works like a giant conveyor belt, carrying warm surface water from the equator up north, and sending cold, low-salinity deep water back down south".[44] The process is driven by changes in salinity and temperature, described as thermohaline circulation. As warm water flows northwards, some evaporates which increases salinity. It also cools when it mixes with fresh water from melting ice in West Antarctica and Greenland. Cold, salty water is more dense and slowly begins to sink.[45] Several kilometres below the surface, cold, dense water then begins to move south. This cycle, which moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second,[44] is the process of 'overturning'.

Rahmstorf says increased rainfall and the melting of continental ice due to global warming is diluting surface sea water and warming it up. "That makes the water lighter and, therefore, unable to sink – or less able to sink – which, basically, slows down that whole engine of the global overturning circulation".[46]

Theory, simplified models, and paleo observations of abrupt changes in the past, suggest the AMOC has a tipping point. These observations suggest that if freshwater input reaches a certain threshold (currently unknown), it could collapse into a state of reduced flow.[47]

Observation-based early warning signals

In 2018, studies found that the Gulf Stream was at its weakest in at least 1,600 years, and was 15% weaker than in 400AD - described as "an exceptionally large deviation".[48] In August 2021, a study in Nature Climate Change said "significant early-warning signals" have been "found in eight independent AMOC indices"[49] suggesting that the AMOC "may be nearing a shutdown".[50]

Stefan Rahmstorf says the latest climate models suggest that if global warming continues at the current pace, by the end of this century, the system will have weakened by 34% to 45%. He says: "This could bring us dangerously close to the tipping point at which the flow becomes unstable".[51] If the AMOC does shut down, a new stable state could emerge that lasts for thousands of years, possibly triggering other tipping points.[46]

West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrationEdit

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is one of three regions making up Antarctica. In places it is more than 4 kilometres thick and sits on bedrock that largely lies below sea level.[52] As such, it is in contact with ocean heat, as well as warmer air which makes it vulnerable to rapid and irreversible ice loss. A tipping point could be reached if thinning or collapse of the WAIS’s ice shelves triggers a feedback loop that leads to rapid and irreversible loss of land ice into the ocean - with the potential to raise sea levels by around 3.3 metres.[53]

The poles are warming more quickly than the rest of the planet and due to warming seas and warmer air, ice loss from the WAIS had tripled from 53 billion tonnes a year from 1992–97 to 159 billion tonnes a year between 2012–2017.[54] A study in Nature Geoscience says the palaeo record suggests that during the past few hundred thousand years, the WAIS largely disappeared in response to similar levels of warming and CO
2
emission scenarios projected for the next few centuries.[55]

Amazon rainforest diebackEdit

The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. It is twice the size of India and spans nine countries in South America.[56] It generates around half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture through evaporation and transpiration as air moves across the forest.[57]

Deforestation of the Amazon began when colonists began establishing farms in the forest in the 1960s. They generally slashed and burned the trees in order to cultivate crops. However, soils in the Amazon are only productive for a short period after the land is cleared, so farmers would simply move and clear more land.[58] Other colonists cleared land to raise cattle, leading to further deforestation and environmental damage.[59] Heatwaves and drought have now become a factor driving additional tree deaths. This indicates that the Amazon is experiencing climatic conditions beyond its adaptative limits.[60] This process is described as dieback defined by the World Bank as “the process by which the Amazon basin loses biomass density as a consequence of changes in climate”.[61]

By 2019, at least 17% of the Amazon had already been lost.[62] That year, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President pledging to open up the rain forest for even more farming and mining and according to environmentalists his administration deliberately weakened environmental protection.[63] More than 70,000 forest fires broke out in the 12 months after he was elected, as farmers set fires to clear land for crops or cattle ranching.[64]

The result was that in 2020, deforestation rose another 17% caused by wildfires, beef production and logging.[65] In March 2021, the first long-term study of greenhouse gases in the Amazon rainforest found that in the 2010s the rainforest released more carbon dioxide than it absorbed.[66] The forest had previously been a carbon sink, but is now emitting a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Deforestation has led to fewer trees which means more severe droughts and heatwaves develop leading to more tree deaths and more fires.[67][68]

West African monsoon shiftEdit

The West African Monsoon (WAM) system brings rainfall to West Africa and is the main source of rainfall in the agriculturally based region of the Sahel, an area of semi-arid grassland between the Sahara desert to the north and tropical rainforests to the south. The monsoon is a complex system in which land, ocean and atmosphere are connected is such a way that the wind direction reverses with the seasons.[69]

However, the monsoon is notoriously unreliable. Between the late 1960s and 1980s, the average rainfall declined by more than 30% plunging the region into an extended drought. This led to a famine that killed tens of thousands of people and triggered an international aid effort.[70] Research has shown the drought was largely due to changes in the surface temperatures of the global oceans, in particular, warming of the tropical oceans in response to rising greenhouse gases combined with cooling in the North Atlantic as a result of air pollution from northern hemisphere countries.[71]

Projections from climate models suggest the WAM may collapse during this century.[citation needed] Two projections lead to further drying of the Sahel, one of which predicts a doubling of the number of anomalously dry years by the end of the century. Another projection suggests the opposite, that there will be more rainfall due to increased inflow from the West - linked to a tipping point of 3C of localised warming in the Gulf of Guinea.[72][better source needed]

Permafrost and methane hydratesEdit

Permafrost is ground containing soil and/or organic material bound together by ice and which has remained frozen for at least two years.[73] It covers around a quarter of the non-glaciated land in the northern hemisphere – mainly in Siberia, Alaska, northern Canada and the Tibetan plateau – and can be as much as a kilometre thick.[74] Subsea permafrost up to 100 metres thick also occurs on the sea floor under part of the Arctic Ocean.[73] This frozen ground holds vast amounts of carbon, derived from plants and animals that have died and decomposed over thousands of years. Scientists believe there is nearly twice as much carbon in permafrost than is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere.[75]

As the climate warms and the permafrost begins to thaw, carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere. Research conducted by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2019 found that thawing permafrost across the Arctic “could be releasing an estimated 300-600m tonnes of net carbon per year to the atmosphere”.[76] In a Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, the IPCC says there is “high confidence” in projections of “widespread disappearance of Arctic near-surface permafrost this century" which is "projected to release 10s to 100s of billions of tonnes [or gigatonnes, GtC], up to as much as 240 GtC, of permafrost carbon as CO
2
and methane into the atmosphere".[77]

Coral reef die-offEdit

Around 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income, tourism and coastal protection.[78] Since the 1980's, this is being threatened by the increase in sea surface temperatures which is triggering mass bleaching of coral, especially in sub-tropical regions.[79] A sustained ocean temperature spike of 1 °C (1.8 °F) above average is enough to cause bleaching.[80] Under continued heat stress, corals expel the tiny colourful algae which live in their tissues leaving behind a white skeleton. The algae, known as zooxanthellae, have a symbiotic relationship with coral such that without them, the corals slowly die.[81]

Between 1979 - 2010, 35 coral reef bleaching events were identified at a variety of locations.[82] Some bleaching events are relatively localised, but the frequency and severity of mass-bleaching events affecting coral over hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres has been increasing over the last few decades.[83] Mass bleaching events occurred in 1998, 2010, and between 2014–2017. This three year event affected more than 70 percent of the world’s coral reefs, leaving two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef dead or severely bleached. Scientific American reports that the world has lost around 50% of coral reefs in the past 30 years.[84] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that by the time temperatures have risen to 1.5C above pre-industrial times, between 70% and 90% of coral reefs that exist today will have disappeared; and that if the world warms by 2 °C, "coral reefs will be vanishingly rare".[85]

Indian monsoon shiftEdit

In India, the monsoon usually arrives in June, releasing 80% of the country's annual rainfall in four months.[86] The rains cools the atmosphere, water the crops, and fill rivers and wells - through to September. This has largely been the pattern for hundreds of years, although the timing has always varied to some extent and the intensity of the rain has often led to flooding.[87] Since 1950, the monsoon itself has weakened but, at the same time, there has been a 300% increase in extreme rainfall events over central India. Studies suggest these events are largely driven by a 1–2 °C increase in sea surface temperature in the north Arabian Sea, two to three weeks before the actual downpour - which generally lasts two or three days.[88] Most studies predict that as global warming continues, there will be more and more extreme rainfall events.[87]

Although India’s summer monsoon has often precipitated floods, extreme rainfall events have exacerbated the problem. Between 1996 to 2005, there were 67 floods in India; in the following ten year period from 2006 to 2015, the number rose to 90. This affects the lives, food and water security of billions of people in the Indian subcontinent.[87] Most Indians rely on farming to make a living, and crops are highly sensitive to variabilities in rainfall. An analysis in 2017 found that up to $14.3 billion of India's GDP is exposed to river flooding, making India more vulnerable to extreme rain events than any other country in the world - and that this figure could rise 10-fold by 2030.[89] More conservatively, in 2018, the IPCC reported that if global temperatures rise by 3 degrees C, an increase in the intensity of monsoon rainfall is “likely”.[90]

Greenland ice sheet disintegrationEdit

The Greenland ice sheet is the second largest mass of ice in the world, and is three times the size of Texas.[91] It holds enough water, which if it melted, could raise global sea levels by 7.2 metres.[92] Due to global warming, the ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate adding around 0.7 mm to global sea levels every year.[93] Around half of the melt that the ice sheet experiences occurs at the surface where it form pools of warmer water that then melt holes in the sheet. The remainder of the melting occurs at the base of the ice sheet where it is in touch with the sea, and by the breaking off, or 'calving', of icebergs from its edge.[94]

In June 2012, 97% of the entire ice sheet experienced surface melting for the first time in recorded history.[95] In 2019, Greenland lost a record 532 billion tons of ice, the most mass in any one year since at least 1948.[96] In 2020, researchers at Ohio State University said that snowfall in Greenland is no longer able to compensate for the loss of ice due to this melting, such that the disintegration of the ice sheet is now inevitable.[97]

In July 2021, in the space of less than a week, Greenland lost 18.4 billion tons of ice in the third extreme melting event in the last ten years, with loss of ice from a larger inland area of Greenland even than in 2019. Commenting on this event, Thomas Slater, a glaciologist at the University of Leeds said: "As the atmosphere continues to warm over Greenland, events such as yesterday's extreme melting will become more frequent".[98] Climate scientist, Dr Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute, says a tipping point for the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is unlikely to be abrupt but believes there will be a threshold beyond which its eventual collapse is irreversible.[99]

Boreal forest shiftEdit

Boreal forests, also known as taiga, are made up of trees that can cope with the cold such as conifers, spruce, fir, pine, larch, birch and aspen. They cover about 11% of the earth's land areas in northern latitudes across Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, and Russia.[100] They amount to 30% of the world’s forests and constitute the largest ecosystem on land.[101] It is estimated that they hold more than one third of all terrestrial carbon.[102]

The boreal zone, along with the tundra to the north, is warming approximately twice as quickly as the global average.[103] A study in 2012 found that as the summers warm, it is becoming too hot for these particular tree species. This makes them vulnerable to disease, decreasing their reproduction rates.[104] A 2017 review in Nature Climate Change concluded that rapid warming and lower tree species diversity would lead to “disturbances” in boreal forests brought about by drought, fire, pests and disease.[105] In 2020, Woods Hole Research Center stated that global warming is increasing both the frequency and the severity of fires in boreal forests, and that these fires are releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.[106]

In regard to a potential tipping point, fires pose a significant risk. Prof Scott Goetz from Northern Arizona University, and science lead on NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, says a tipping point in boreal forests could occur if an extreme fire event makes the forest incapable of regenerating and it becomes a sparsely wooded or grassland ecosystem.[107]

Other concernsEdit

The El Niño–Southern Oscillation

Other examples of possible large scale tipping elements are a shift in El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Normally strong winds blow west across the South Pacific Ocean from South America to Australia. Every two to seven years, the winds weaken due to pressure changes and the air and water in the middle of the Pacific warms up, causing changes in wind movement patterns around the globe. This known as El Niño and it has led to droughts in Indonesia, India and Brazil, and increased flooding in Peru. In 2015/2016, this caused food shortages affecting over 60 million people.[108] El Niño-induced droughts may increase the likelihood of forest fires in the Amazon.[109]

So far, there is no definitive evidence indicating changes in ENSO behaviour.[110] However, the required global warming to push ENSO across the tipping point is likely to happen this century.[111] After crossing a tipping point, the warm El Niño phase would last longer and occur more often.

The Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean also plays an important role in the climate. The dominant current in the Southern Ocean is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. With no continental barriers, this powerful current distributes climate signals to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. This means that any change in the Southern Ocean has potentially massive consequences for the global ocean system and the climate. Significant changes are occurring. Studies have found that since 2006, an estimated 60%–90% of global ocean heat uptake and storage associated with global warming stems from changes in the Southern Ocean.[112]

Arctic sea ice

The Arctic sea ice is warming twice as fast as the global average and in June 2020, the temperature was 18 °C higher than the average daily maximum for that month, the highest ever recorded in the Arctic circle.[113] As a result of long term warming, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by 95% during the last 30 years.[114] In August 2021, the IPCC said that under high CO
2
emissions scenarios, the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in late summers by the end of the century (with high confidence). The IPCC also said that even if the ice disappears, this does not represent a tipping point because “projected losses are potentially reversible”.[115]

Nevertheless, warming in the Arctic allows the frozen permafrost to thaw, releasing locked up carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.[116] In June 2019, satellite images from around the Arctic showed burning fires that are farther north and of greater magnitude than at any time in the 16-year satellite record, and some of the fires appear to have ignited peat soils.[117] Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and is an efficient carbon sink.[118] Scientists are concerned because the long-lasting peat fires release their stored carbon back to the atmosphere, contributing to further warming. The fires in June 2019, for example, released as much carbon dioxide as Sweden's annual greenhouse gas emissions.[119]

CloudsEdit

Some individual feedbacks may be strong enough to trigger tipping points on their own. A 2020 study predicts that a doubling of greenhouse gases would interfere with cloud formation. This could disperse stratocumulus clouds and warm the planet by 5.6 degrees C (10 degrees F).[120][121]

Cascading tipping pointsEdit

Crossing a threshold in one part of the climate system may trigger another tipping element to tip into a new state. These are called cascading tipping points.[122] Ice loss in West Antarctica and Greenland will significantly alter ocean circulation. Sustained warming of the northern high latitudes as a result of this process could activate tipping elements in that region, such as permafrost degradation, loss of Arctic sea ice, and boreal forest dieback.[7] This illustrates that even at relatively low levels of global warming, relatively stable tipping elements may be activated.[123]

In 2019, Timothy Lenton and colleagues at Exeter University, published a study in Nature noting that the two most recent IPCC Special Reports, published in 2018 and 2019, suggest that even 1 and 2 °C of warming might push aspects of the climate past their tipping points.[124] The authors added that the risk of cascading tipping points is "much more likely and much more imminent" and that some "may already have been breached."[124]

In June 2021, Live Science reported that when scientists ran three million computer simulations of a climate model, nearly one-third of those simulations resulted in disastrous domino effects even when temperature increases were limited to 2 °C - the upper limit set by the Paris agreement in 2015.[125] The authors of the Nature study acknowledge that the science of tipping points is complex such that there is great uncertainty as to how they might unfold, but nevertheless, argue that the possibility of cascading tipping points represents “an existential threat to civilisation”.[126]

Tipping point effectsEdit

The possibility that the climate is in the process of surpassing critical tipping points is a major concern. A 2021 meta study, conducted by Simon Dietz, James Rising, Thomas Stoerk, and Gernot Wagner, on the potential economic impact of tipping points found that they raise global risk; the medium estimate was that they increase the social cost of carbon (SCC) by about 25%, with a 10% chance of tipping points more than doubling the SCC.[127] If the climate tips into a state where tipping points begin to cascade, coastal storms will have greater impact, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by rising sea levels, there will be food and water shortages, and people will die from unhealthy heat levels and generally unlivable conditions.[123] Climate change of 4–5 °C can make swathes of the planet around the equator uninhabitable, with sea levels up to 60 metres (197 ft) higher than they are today.[128] Humans cannot survive if the air is too moist and hot, which would happen for the majority of human populations if global temperatures rise by 11–12 °C, as land masses warm faster than the global average.[129] Effects like these have been popularized in books like The Uninhabitable Earth and The End of Nature.

Runaway greenhouse effectEdit

The runaway greenhouse effect is used in astronomical circles to refer to a greenhouse effect that is so extreme that oceans boil away and render a planet uninhabitable, an irreversible climate state that happened on Venus. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report states that "a 'runaway greenhouse effect' —analogous to Venus— appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities."[130] Venus-like conditions on the Earth require a large long-term forcing that is unlikely to occur until the sun brightens by a few tens of percents, which will take a few billion years.[131]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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