How Far Away Is The Planet’s Climate Tipping Point?

The earth’s climate relies on a delicate network of ecosystems. Their interactions are increasingly hard to predict, writes Cora Moran A number of perilous global climate changes are predicted to occur in response to warming caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emission

The earth’s climate relies on a delicate network of systems. Their interactions are increasingly hard to predict, writes Cora Moran

A number of perilous global climate changes are predicted to occur in response to warming caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Many of these – such as rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather events and retreating glaciers – are well known. With the rapid rise in GHGs in the atmosphere due to human activity, there is concern that we may be approaching tipping points which will irreversibly alter the earth’s climate.

With the rapid rise in GHGs in the atmosphere due to human activity, there is concern that we may be approaching tipping points which will irreversibly alter the earth’s climate.

The climate has, of course, changed greatly over time due to natural variation with the cycles of glacial and interglacial periods and at certain points climate systems have ‘tipped’ from one state to another.

However, GHG levels are now higher than they have been for at least two million years and have risen at a rate unprecedented in the geological record.

There is a substantial risk that this may set in motion positive feedback loops in natural systems, leading to irreversible changes. There is debate about exactly when tipping point might be reached for the different aspects which make up the global climate system. Indeed, the rapidity of such changes makes precise predictions for such complex phenomena challenging.

The systems that affect the global climate can generally be delineated into three main entities; the cryosphere, circulation patterns and ecosystem components.

The Cryosphere: These are the sections of the earth’s surface where water is in solid form, such as glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice.

The decline in Arctic sea ice and retreat of glaciers and ice sheets is well documented. In terms of tipping points, it may be that the Arctic Ocean reaches a critical threshold where summer sea ice disappears entirely in future. The same can be said for the disappearance of glaciers and the partial retreat of ice sheets.

Circulation Patterns: The patterns relate to atmospheric and ocean flows; jet streams, for example, are very strong winds in the high part of the atmosphere. These wide bands of air separate the cold dry air from high latitudes and moist warm air from the tropics and their position affects the weather in particular locations.

The poles are currently warming more rapidly than equatorial regions leading to a smaller temperature gradient between the poles and the equator. There is evidence that this temperature gradient decrease is causing jet stream winds to slow down and become more erratic in their movements, leading to an increased prevalence of erratic weather conditions and extreme weather events.

There is also evidence that the Gulf Stream or ‘Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation’ (AMOC) current is weakening. If this were to substantially weaken, or halt entirely, this would lead to much harsher winters in Western Europe.

Ecosystems

Ecosystems across the globe are being altered by a changing climate. For terrestrial ecosystems, communities of plants and animals in high altitude or latitude environments are at greatest risk as their habitats could disappear entirely in a warming world.

On the large scale, forest ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest and boreal forests may contract significantly or – in the long term – potentially face near complete dieback, reducing their effectiveness as a carbon sink.

On the large scale, forest ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest and boreal forests may contract significantly or – in the long term – potentially face near complete dieback, reducing their effectiveness as a carbon sink.

Polar marine ecosystems face similar problems and changing ocean temperatures, increasing ocean acidity and other factors create a host of issues for life in the seas generally.

While we cannot say with complete certainty what the cumulative effects of disrupting any of these systems individually may ultimately be, cumulatively the risk of something going awry is much higher.

These systems do not, of course, operate in isolation and may interact in ways that are hard to predict. Current efforts to decarbonise the world economy and further aggressive action will help us reduce the risk of any unwelcome feedback loop surprises.

Cora Moran is an experienced researcher who has worked in the Built Environment & Renewable Energy sectors for a number of years and writes for the European Energy Centre about a range of environmental issues.

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One comment

  • john graham

    July 25, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    Think we’ve tipped on the climate change this year, large sharks off the Pembrookshire coast, Great Whites sharks in the Med, highest recorded temps almost everywhere in the world. Think most is natural not all human fault, ban cattle will reduce greenhouse gases hugely around the world but maybe too late… even our ET friends with crop circles about the sun this year seem to understand more visit http://www.cropcircleconnector.com !!

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