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The planet is very close to passing five dangerous climate tipping points

Climate change tipping points; Climate tipping are a source of growing scientific, political, and public concern. Activation of these

By Ground report
New Update
Climate change: Six tipping points 'likely' to be crossed

Climate tipping points are a source of growing scientific, political, and public concern. Activation of these hotspots leads to significant, population- and policy-relevant impacts, including substantial sea-level rise due to collapsing ice sheets, dieback of biodiverse biomes, such as the Amazon rainforest or coral of warm waters, and the release of carbon by thawing permafrost. The scientific community identified nine points of no return in 2008 beyond which destructive climate change is inevitable, even if global warming stops.

The Earth's climate system is so complex that it works like a gear, and the points depend on each other, so altering one of them can transform the entire climate machine as we know it.

Climate change tipping points

A new study led by the University of Stockholm, in which a dozen centers have participated and published in the journal Science, has identified seven more points of no return, determining a total of 16. The study concludes that five of the 16 points of no return would have already been activated and that it is "probable" that up to 10 points will be reached. However, by the end of the century, it will be possible to limit global warming to below 2ºC from pre-industrial levels.

A reassessment of climate tipping points adds seven more tipping points to the models and notes that five of the 16 would have already been activated. Scientists warn that 10 could be reached even if global warming is slowed below 2ºC

This first comprehensive reassessment of all tipping points also proposes steps to improve understanding of these milestones, as well as a project to compare models and early warning systems that take advantage of the latest climate learning and remote sensing data.

The sixth assessment report of the IPCC -the group of UN climate specialists-, the last part of which was made public last April, warned of a "high" risk of crossing points of no return due to the increase of 2ºC of temperature, and of the "very high risk once it exceeds 2.5ºC.

However, the new study points out that, at the current level of warming (1.1ºC), it is possible that the Earth has already left the "safe" climatic state and that five of the 16 'tipping points' have been activated: the decline of the Greenland ice sheets, that of the West Antarctic ice sheets, the abrupt melting of permafrost -frozen ground-, the collapse of the convection of the Labrador Sea (one of the new findings) and the mass death of tropical coral reefs.

All in all, scientists insist on the need to mitigate climate change by complying with the objective of the Paris Agreement -containing the increase below 2ºC and, if possible, 2.5ºC by the end of the century-, since Research shows that the risk of tipping points skyrockets with every tenth of a degree added to the planet's average temperature.

According to his calculations, some of the following points of no return to be activated -from 2ºC- are the degradation of the Amazon rainforest, the collapse of the subglacial basins of East Antarctica (another of the new points of no return identified) or the loss of mountain glaciers in the southern cone of America.

The six tipping elements at risk are:

  • Greenland Ice Sheet collapse
  • West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse
  • Collapse of water circulation in the North Atlantic 
  • Warm-water coral reef loss 
  • Rapid thawing of Boreal permafrost 
  • Loss of Barent’s sea ice 

The Paris Agreement is not enough

This new analysis indicates that the Earth may have already left a "safe" climate state when temperatures exceeded about 1°C of warming. Thus, it is determined that even the UN Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C is not sufficient to completely avoid dangerous climate change.

The study provides strong scientific support for the Paris Agreement and associated efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, showing that the risk of tipping points increases beyond this level. To have a 50% chance of reaching 1.5°C, and thus limit tipping point risks, global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.

A growing risk

Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research states that “the world is heading towards 2°C and 3°C of global warming. This puts Earth on a path to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people around the world. To maintain livable conditions on the planet, protect people from rising extremes, and enable stable societies, we must do everything we can to avoid crossing tipping points. Every tenth of a degree counts.”

Tim Lenton, director of the Institute for Global Systems at the University of Exeter and also a co-author on the paper, laments that since he first assessed climate tipping points in 2008, "the list has grown and our assessment of the risk they represent has grown. . increased dramatically."

“Our new work provides compelling evidence that the world must radically accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy to limit the risk of crossing climate tipping points. To achieve this, we now need to trigger positive social tipping points that accelerate the transformation to a clean energy future.”

“We may also need to adapt to address climate tipping points that we were unable to prevent, and support those who may suffer uninsurable loss and damage,” adds Lenton.

Rotating elements

By analyzing paleoclimate data, current observations, and climate models, the international team concluded that 16 major biophysical systems involved in regulating Earth's climate have the potential to cross tipping points where changes will occur no matter what. the temperature stops rising. This transition varies from decades to thousands of years, depending on the system.

The researchers classified tipping elements into nine systems that affect the entire Earth system, such as Antarctica and the Amazon rainforest, and seven other systems that, if disrupted, would have profound regional consequences. The latter include the West African monsoon and the death of most coral reefs around the equator. Several new items have been added, such as Labrador Sea convection and East Antarctic subglacial basins, compared to the 2008 assessment.

“Importantly, many tipping elements in the Earth system are interrelated, making cascading tipping points a serious additional concern. In fact, the interactions can lower critical temperature thresholds beyond which individual tipping elements start to destabilize in the long term," says co-author Ricarda Winkelmann, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“We have taken a first step in updating the world on the risks of the tipping point. There is an urgent need for further international analyses, especially on tipping element interactions, for which the Earth Commission is initiating a Tipping Point Model Comparison Project (TIPMIP)," concludes Armstrong McKay.

Why have the “tipping point” predictions changed?

In 2008, a group of UK and German climatologists compiled a list of nine tipping elements and their associated tipping points. They outlined how these large-scale components of the Earth's climate system are at risk of being affected by human-induced climate change and issued their report as a warning to the international community.

They reported that critical climate tipping points could be reached within the century if there is no sustainable intervention, a serious underestimate on the time scale, it is actually much shorter.

Since then, scientific understanding of tipping points has advanced significantly through paleoclimate, observational, and model-based studies, prompting a re-evaluation of the 2008 report's findings.

Through analysis of the current literature in the field, the new study now provides an updated list of the 16 most important tipping elements and reveals how not only are many tipping points likely to be reached sooner rather than later, but in fact we may have already triggered them.

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