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unsplash.com | AlexanderHafemann

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How climate tipping elements interact

Beyond 2°C of global warming, the risk of one climate tipping element triggering other tipping processes in the Earth’s climate system strongly increases. This is the result of a new study by an international team of scientists. They mapped out the current state of literature on the interactions between tipping elements and find that most of them are destabilising, further weakening the climate system.

“We find that many of the interactions between tipping elements are of destabilising nature. This can lead to a chain reaction of changes in the climate system under global warming. Out of the discussed interactions, nine are assessed as destabilising while two are stabilising, and three of unclear status,” says lead author Nico Wunderling from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research PIK. “Between 1.5 to 2°C, the risk of tipping cascades is less likely but also possible. If global warming surpasses 2°C, tipping cascades may then include fast tipping elements such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or the Amazon rainforest.”

While recent research has deepened the knowledge on tipping elements like polar ice sheets, tropical rainforests, permafrost regions or the marine biosphere, the interactions between them are less well understood. Most tipping elements are linked to other tipping elements via circulation systems in the ocean and atmosphere, meaning that the tipping of one element may trigger the tipping of another element, similar to a domino effect. Tipping elements interact across scales in space and time spanning from subcontinental to nearly planetary spatial scales from sub-yearly up to millennial time scales.

The study published in the journal Earth System Dynamic provides an overview of the current knowledge of tipping element interactions and the potential for tipping cascades. The paper, that was initiated b PIK and Utrecht University, sets out the scientific background to chapter 1.5 “Climate tipping point interactions and cascades ” of the recently published Global Tipping Points Report. In order to review the influences between tipping elements and identify significant knowledge gaps, the authors gathered evidence from model simulations, observations and conceptual understanding, as well as examples of paleoclimate reconstructions. They also discuss the value of newly arising methods from machine learning and Earth-observation, and propose four approaches to further decrease uncertainties in the existence and strength of many links between tipping elements. The researchers conclude that more emphasis in tipping elements research has to be put on potential interactions.


Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung PIK 2024

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