Quick-Change Planet: Do Global Climate Tipping Points Exist?

Is there a chance that human intervention—rising temperatures, massive land-use changes, biodiversity loss and so on—could “tip” the entire world into a new climatic state? And if so, does that change what we should do about it?

As far back as 2008 NASA’s James Hansen argued that we had crossed a “tipping point” in the Arctic with regard to summer sea ice. The diminishing ice cover had moved past a critical threshold, and from then on levels would drop precipitously toward zero, with little hope of recovery. Other experts now say that recent years have confirmed that particular cliff-fall, and the September 2012 record minimum—an astonishing 18 percent lower than 2007’s previous record—was likely no fluke.

Sea ice represents a big system, but it is generally thought to be self-contained enough to follow such a tipping-point pattern. The question that has started to pop up increasingly in the last year, however, is whether that sort of phase transition, where a system shifts rapidly—in nonlinear fashion, as scientists say—from one state to another without recovery in a timescale meaningful to humanity, is possible on a truly global scale.

“You’re pushing an egg toward the end of the table,” says Tony Barnosky, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. At first, he says, “not much happens. Then it goes off the edge and it breaks. That egg is now in a fundamentally different state, you can’t get it back to what it was.” Barnosky was the lead author on a much-discussed paper in Nature[DL1] last summer that suggested the world’s biosphere was nearing a “state shift”—a planetary-scale tipping point where seemingly disconnected systems all shifted simultaneously into a “new normal.” (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

Claims of catastrophic temperature shifts are unlikely to go down without an argument. A new paper published recently in Trends in Ecology & Evolution by Barry Brook of the University of Adelaide in Australia and colleagues argues that there is no real grounding to the idea that the world could display true tipping-point characteristics. The only way such a massive shift could occur, Brook says, is if ecosystems around the world respond to human forcings in essentially identical ways. Generally, there would need to be “strong connections between continents that allow for rapid diffusion of impacts across the planet.”

This sort of connection is unlikely to exist, he says. Oceans and mountain ranges cut off different ecosystems from each other, and the response of a given region is likely to be strongly influenced by local circumstances. For example, burning trees in the Amazon can increase CO2 in the atmosphere and help raise temperatures worldwide, but the fate of similar rainforests in Malaysia probably depend more on what’s happening locally than by those global effects of Amazonian deforestation. Brook and colleagues looked at four major drivers of terrestrial ecosystem change: climate change, land-use change, habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss; they found that truly global nonlinear responses basically won’t happen. Instead, global-scale transitions are likely to be smooth.

“To be honest, when others have said that a planetary critical transition is possible [or] likely, they’ve done so without any underlying model,” Brook says. “It’s just speculation…. No one has found the opposite of what we suggested—they’ve just proposed it.” In their analysis Brook’s group concluded that the diversity of local responses to global forcings like increasing temperature means we cannot identify any particular point of no return.

Tim Lenton, an expert on tipping points at the University of Exeter in England, says there is no convincing evidence of global shift yet, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility. “It’s not obvious how you can get a change in Siberia then causing a synchronized change in Canada or Alaska,” he says, referring to a commonly cited climate feedback loop of permafrost melting at northern latitudes. “That doesn’t seem likely. It’s more that different parts of the Arctic are going to reach the thawing threshold at the same time just because they’re getting to the same kind of temperature.” This is a fine distinction: Are we looking at multiple systems tipping as one, or just a coincidental amalgam of unconnected systems falling off a ledge at similar time points?

Lenton says that there is a chance that ice-free Arctic summers could start a cascade effect—for example, elevated temperatures on nearby land that eventually find their way down into the permafrost and cause rapid melting. The carbon released by the permafrost could in turn initiate further warming, and maybe tip another disconnected system and so forth. “It’s a bit like having some dominos lined up,” he says. “I’m not sure yet whether we have a scenario like that for future climate change, but it’s worth consideration.”

Such a domino effect could end up looking more like a “smooth” response than a nonlinear one, but NASA’s Hansen says this doesn’t suggest we should ignore it. “Most tipping points are ‘smoothed out,’ but that does not decrease their importance,” he says. Even Arctic sea ice shows a smoothed response as it rolls past the point of no return. “Once you have passed a certain point, it takes only little additional forcing to lose all the sea ice.” And he echoes Lenton on the idea of dominos and hugely important sub-global systems: “[It’s] hard to see how the Greenland ice sheet would survive if we have sea ice-free summers.” In other words, melted sea ice could beget massive sea level rise, thanks to a supposedly unconnected system.

And further, that non-connectivity is not necessarily a given. Barnosky argues that the fundamental assumption that systems around the world are not strongly connected is no longer true. “What used to be isolated parts of the Earth really are very connected now, and we’re the connectors,” he says. Further, his group’s paper based the possibility of a global tipping point largely on comparisons to planetary history: Earth has exhibited rapid phase shifts in the past, and we are blowing those types of changes out of the water now. For example, the shift from the last glacial period into the current interglacial, which took only a few millennia ending around 11,000 years ago, featured abrupt land-use change: about 30 percent of the land surface went from ice-covered to ice-free over those few thousand years. In just a few hundred years, humans have converted about 43 percent of the world’s land to agricultural or urban landscapes.

Whether such rapid changes portend a new global shift is, to some extent, an esoteric, academic question. The answer depends on whether the world can really follow the classic mathematical definition of tipping points that relies on “bifurcation theory.” That theory holds that a system follows a smooth curve until a certain threshold—the egg rolls at similar speed until it hits the edge of the table—when it jumps to a new state with no obvious change in external pressures. And importantly, once that jump is made there is essentially no going back; you can’t “unbreak” the egg.

And at the bottom of the mathematical debate is a question of utility: Would the existence of a real planetary-scale tipping point change how we should confront our environmental challenges, from energy sources to land use?

A more accurate picture would not just let us prepare for rapid climate change, but might help us predict it as well. Marten Scheffer, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has done extensive work on ways we can see tipping points coming. On smaller scales, he says, a system can exhibit “critical slowing down”—a slowed ability to recover from perturbations—before jumping to the irreversible new state. Scheffer says, arguing for tipping points, that past global-scale, quick changes in climate appear to have exhibited a similar effect.

And if we agree a tipping point can exist, maybe we can even try and stave it off. As the world seems to be inching closer to addressing climate change, identifying specific targets for the most effective mitigation grows ever more important. In his recent State of the Union speech, Pres. Barack Obama called for unilateral action to address global warming–related emissions; if we can find a tipping point threshold, is that reason to adjust such action to reflect the possibility of rapid global-scale change?

“If there is plausibility to one of these tipping points, which I think there is, then it’s an even more urgent matter to act to slow all of these individual stressors down,” U.C. Berkeley’s Barnosky says, “because the outcomes could be more surprising and more disruptive to society, and happen faster than we have time to react…. I’d much rather err on the side of precaution then ignore the possibility of tipping points and then be unpleasantly surprised when they happen.”

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