Climate Change Tipping Points

by Daniel Brouse and Sidd Mukherjee
September 2022 and August 2023

Tipping points and feedback loops are parts of an equation that determine the rate of acceleration in climate change. When tipping points topple and knock over other tipping points it is called the Domino Effect.

What Are Tipping Points?

Push a glass toward the edge of a table and eventually it will fall off on its own. No matter how slowly or meticulously you push... no matter how you weight or fill the glass, it will reach a tipping point and fall off before being pushed completely off the table.

No matter whether you believe the glass is half-empty or half-full, when the tipping point is reached it will plummet out-of-control to its end. This is science not fate, faith, nor belief.

Human induced climate change has resulted in environmental tipping points being breached.

Climate Change Tipping Points

Tipping points are the points in time when a process becomes self-sustaining without further human activity. Climate change tipping points are positions in an evolving system that lead to a new and irreversible development in global warming.

Some of these tipping points have already been crossed. The methane that escaped from under melting polar ice can not be put back. Melted ice that formed in the Alps 25,000 years ago would take at least 25,000 years to recreate. Permafrost is melting in Greenland, Alaska, Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. As these frozen soils warm, the ground destabilizes, methane is released, well-preserved woolly mammoths are exposed. The Iberdrola group reports, "Melting Siberian permafrost is turning parts of the tundra into muddy landscapes, causing the local flora to disappear and the wildlife that feeds on it to starve. Furthermore, when the permafrost beneath water bodies, such as lakes, melts, the water seeps into the ground and disappears, causing droughts." None of these changes can easily be restored. Methane is one of the most significant causes of global warming. The release of methane from ancient storage results in a feedback loop -- the released methane causes further warming. In turn, the further warming releases more methane.

Climate Tipping Points

"A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated," said lead author Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in 2019.

"The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent, and we need an emergency response."

Some active tipping points:
* Greenland and the Collapse of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet
* Mountain Glacier Loss
* Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)
* Amazon Rainforest Dieback
* Arctic Sea Ice
* Boreal Forests
* Permafrost
* Warm-water Corals
* West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The tipping point for the collapse of AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) was thought to be centuries away, at the earliest. In July of 2023, the study Warning of a forthcoming collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation was published in the journal Nature Communications. "Here we provide statistical significance and data-driven estimators for the time of tipping. We estimate a collapse of the AMOC to occur around mid-century (2050) under the current scenario of future emissions."

The collapse is likely to cause faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US, more severe storms in Europe, and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa. "From the study of past climate, we know changes in the AMOC have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate," said Prof. Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and world leading oceanographer. During the last Ice Age, winter temperatures changed by up to 10C within three years in some places. "We are dealing with a system that in some aspects is highly non-linear, so fiddling with it is very dangerous, because you may well trigger some surprises," he said. "I wish I knew where this critical tipping point is, but that is unfortunately just what we don't know. We should avoid disrupting the AMOC at all costs. It is one more reason why we should stop global warming as soon as possible."

In the paper Climate Change: How Long Is "Ever"?, we wrote: "Extreme weather will become more frequent and intense. Sea levels will rapidly rise as the coasts disappear. However, the most concerning development will be feedback loops. Plants will become extinct and many carbon sinks will vanish. The Earth's temperature will continue to accelerate at an exponential rate no matter what humans do. Food, fresh water, and breathable air will cease to exist. Humans will likely follow in short order. These 'tipping points' were preventable; however, now they are becoming inevitable."

Sidd added, "That's only one paper, and the window is 2025-2095. I suspect there are many surprises in wait for us."

Triggering Multiple Climate Tipping Points

When a tipping point causes another tipping point to be toppled it is called the The Domino Effect. (Mountain glacier loss, the collapse of AMOC, and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest is an example.)

The Journal Science study Triggering Multiple Climate Tipping Points

As this study concludes, we have already crossed some tipping points. Tipping points are climate change triggers that will last for 1,000's or many 1,000's of years beyond the ending of human emissions.

"Their analysis indicates that even global warming of 1 C, a threshold that we already have passed, puts us at risk by triggering some tipping points. This finding provides a compelling reason to limit additional warming as much as possible."

We are currently 1.1C above -- "risks increase with each tenth of a degree of further warming."

Research, said: "The world is heading towards 2-3 C of global warming. This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world. To maintain liveable conditions on Earth, protect people from rising extremes, and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points.

CONCLUSION (in 2022): Exceeding 1.5 C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points

"Our assessment provides strong scientific evidence for urgent action to mitigate climate change. We show that even the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2 C and preferably 1.5 C is not safe as 1.5 C and above risks crossing multiple tipping points. Crossing these CTPs can generate positive feedbacks that increase the likelihood of crossing other CTPs. Currently the world is heading toward ~2 to 3 C of global warming; at best, if all net-zero pledges and nationally determined contributions are implemented it could reach just below 2 C. This would lower tipping point risks somewhat but would still be dangerous as it could trigger multiple climate tipping points."

"Remember these numbers have error bars on them. So if we think a tipping point might not be exceeded at 1.5C, we might be wrong, and have already exceeded it at 1C," said climate scientist Sidd Mukherjee. In fact, many tipping points have already been triggered, and they triggered a cascading number of other tipping points. Melting sea ice results in a darker, heat absorbing ocean surface. The warmer ocean triggers further ice melt resulting in more dark ocean surface. This feedback loop also triggers increased methane being released. Increased methane emissions trigger melting permafrost. Melting permafrost releases more methane. More methane triggers more sea ice and permafrost melting.

The month of July 2023 averaged 3C above pre-industrial levels.

Tipping Points
Modified from "Exceeding 1.5℃ global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points" (Sept. 2022)

Tipping points and feedback loops are parts of an equation that determine the rate of acceleration in climate change.

Climate Change: The End of Times

The Human Induced Climate Change Experiment

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