Early warning of climate tipping points

A climate ‘tipping point’ occurs when a small change in forcing triggers a strongly nonlinear response in the internal dynamics of part of the climate system, qualitatively changing its future state. Human-induced climate change could push several large-scale ‘tipping elements’ past a tipping point. Candidates include irreversible melt of the Greenland ice sheet, dieback of the Amazon rainforest and shift of the West African monsoon. Recent assessments give an increased probability of future tipping events, and the corresponding impacts are estimated to be large, making them significant risks. Recent work shows that early warning of an approaching climate tipping point is possible in principle, and could have considerable value in reducing the risk that they pose. …

Elements of the climate system known as tipping elements1 — which could pass a tipping point this century and undergo a qualitative change in state within this millennium — include the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC), West Antarctic ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Amazon rainforest, boreal forests, West African monsoon, Indian summer monsoon, and El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Passing a tipping point (defined in Box 1) is typically viewed as a ‘high-impact low-probability’ event. However, recent (re)assessments give an increased likelihood of ‘large-scale discontinuities’ in the climate system under a given level of global warming2, such that unmitigated climate change could result in some becoming ‘high-impact high-probability’ events1, 3, demanding early warning capability4.

More (Click here) Timothy M. Lenton, Nature Climate Change 1, 201–209, (2011), doi:10.1038/nclimate1143

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