Climate Change

Picture of neglect: Tipping elements hold the future of our planet; here is how

Giant ice sheets, ocean currents and permafrost regions may have already degraded irreversibly. Other crucial climate systems like the Amazon might be lost forever if the world does not restrict its emissions fast

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 05 October 2022

The Earth has 16 climate systems essential for its sustenance. These are dubbed ‘tipping elements’ and have certain temperature thresholds, or tipping points, beyond which even a slight change will cause irreparable damage and lead to catastrophic consequences.

Once the tipping points are breached, the elements will collapse, even if the temperature rise is arrested then and there.

Scientists who first identified and assessed the tipping points in 2008 have recently reassessed them and found that five of the elements are already very close to their tipping points when the world is 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial period, and most others will breach the levels as the planet grows warmer.

If the world fails to restrict warming to 1.5°C , as agreed under the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, then four of the five tipping points of the elements will move from the realm of possibility to likely events, and five others will become possible, increasing risks for populations around the world.

The risks of crossing the tipping points steadily increase after this point, with the highest being beyond 2°C of warming.

“Many tipping elements in the Earth system are interlinked, making cascading tipping points a serious additional concern. In fact, interactions can lower the critical temperature thresholds beyond which individual tipping elements begin destabilising in the long run,” said Ricarda Winkelmann, co-author of the study released on September 9.

“Our new work provides compelling evidence that the world must radically accelerate decarbonising the economy to limit the risk of crossing climate tipping points,” said Timothy Lenton, co-author of the study.

To achieve that, the world now needs to trigger positive social tipping points that accelerate the transformation to a clean energy future.

“We may also have to adapt to cope with climate tipping points that we fail to avoid and support those who could suffer uninsurable losses and damages,” he added.

Read Every tenth of a degree counts: Scientists sound alarm as number of climate tipping elements rises

Maps do not include Arctic Winter Sea Ice and East Antarctic Ice Sheet as they will reach their tipping points only if the world becomes 4oC warmer than from pre-industrial period.Source: ‘Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points’ publsihed on September 9 in Science

This was first published in the 1-15 October, 2022 edition of Down To Earth

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