Climate system approaching 9 critical tipping points
February 4, 2008
The paper, which draws on an October 2005 workshop of leading climate scientists at the British Embassy in Berlin, Germany as well as a review of other research, regards melting of Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland Ice Sheet as the most sensitive 'tipping elements' with the smallest uncertainty. The researchers coined the term 'tipping elements' to describe those components of the climate system that are at risk of passing a tipping point.
"Society must not be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change," said lead author Tim Lenton, a professor at the University of East Anglia. "Our findings suggest that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under human-induced climate change. The greatest threats are tipping of the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and at least five other elements could surprise us by exhibiting a nearby tipping point."
The authors propose establishing early warning systems to detect the proximity of certain tipping points.
A news release from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, an institution involved in the research, lists the nine tipping elements as:
Arctic sea-ice - As sea-ice melts, it exposes a much darker ocean surface, which absorbs more radiation than white sea-ice so that the warming is amplified. This causes more rapid melting in summer and decreases ice formation in winter. Over the last 16 years ice cover during summer declined markedly. The critical threshold global mean warming may be between 0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, but could already have been passed. One model shows a nonlinear transition to a potential new stable state with no arctic sea-ice during summer within a few decades. (approximately 10 years)
Intermediately sensitive tipping elements, large uncertainty:
West Antarctic Ice Sheet - Recent gravity measurements suggest that the ice sheet is losing mass. Since most of the ice sheet is grounded below sea level the intrusion of ocean water could destabilize it. The tipping point could be reached with a local warming of five to eight degrees Celsius in summer. A worst case scenario shows the ice sheet could collapse within 300 years, possibly raising sea level by as much as five meters. (more than 300 years)
Boreal forest - The northern forests exhibit a complex interplay between tree physiology, permafrost and fire. A global mean warming of three to five degrees Celsius could lead to large-scale dieback of the boreal forests within 50 years. Under climate change the trees would be exposed to increasing water stress and peak summer heat and would be more vulnerable to diseases. Temperate tree species will remain excluded due to frost damage in still very cold winters. (approximately 50 years)
Amazon rainforest - Global warming and deforestation will probably reduce rainfall in the region by up to 30 percent. Lengthening of the dry season, and increases in summer temperatures would make it difficult for the forest to re-establish. Models project dieback of the Amazon rainforest to occur under three to four degrees Celsius global warming within fifty years. Even land-use change alone could potentially bring forest cover to a critical threshold. (approximately 50 years)
El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) - The variability of this ocean-atmosphere mode is controlled by the layering of water of different temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and the temperature gradient across the equator. During the globally three degrees Celsius warmer early Pliocene ENSO may have been suppressed in favor of persistent El Niño or La Niña conditions. In response to a warmer stabilized climate, the most realistic models simulate increased El Niño amplitude with no clear change in frequency. (approximately 100 years)
Indian summer monsoon - The monsoon circulation is driven by a land-to-ocean pressure gradient. Greenhouse warming tends to strengthen the monsoon since warmer air can carry more water. Air pollution and land-use that increases the reflection of sunlight tend to weaken it. The Indian summer monsoon could become erratic and in the worst case start to chaotically change between an active and a weak phase within a few years. (approximately 1 year)
Lowly sensitive tipping elements, intermediate uncertainty:
Atlantic thermohaline circulation - The circulation of sea currents in the Atlantic Ocean is driven by seawater that flows to the North Atlantic, cools and sinks at high latitudes. If the inflow of freshwater increases, e.g. from rivers or melting glaciers, or the seawater is warmed, its density would decrease. A global mean warming of three to five degrees Celsius could push the element past the tipping point so that deep water formation stops. Under these conditions the North Atlantic current would be disrupted, sea level in the North Atlantic region would rise and the tropical rain belt would be shifted. (approximately 100 years)