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, 105 (6), 1786-93

Tipping Elements in the Earth's Climate System


Tipping Elements in the Earth's Climate System

Timothy M Lenton et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.


The term "tipping point" commonly refers to a critical threshold at which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system. Here we introduce the term "tipping element" to describe large-scale components of the Earth system that may pass a tipping point. We critically evaluate potential policy-relevant tipping elements in the climate system under anthropogenic forcing, drawing on the pertinent literature and a recent international workshop to compile a short list, and we assess where their tipping points lie. An expert elicitation is used to help rank their sensitivity to global warming and the uncertainty about the underlying physical mechanisms. Then we explain how, in principle, early warning systems could be established to detect the proximity of some tipping points.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
Map of potential policy-relevant tipping elements in the climate system, updated from ref. and overlain on global population density. Subsystems indicated could exhibit threshold-type behavior in response to anthropogenic climate forcing, where a small perturbation at a critical point qualitatively alters the future fate of the system. They could be triggered this century and would undergo a qualitative change within this millennium. We exclude from the map systems in which any threshold appears inaccessible this century (e.g., East Antarctic Ice Sheet) or the qualitative change would appear beyond this millennium (e.g., marine methane hydrates). Question marks indicate systems whose status as tipping elements is particularly uncertain.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Method for estimating the proximity to a tipping point. (A) Schematic approach: The potential wells represent stable attractors, and the ball, the state of the system. Under gradual anthropogenic forcing (progressing from dark to light blue potential), the right potential well becomes shallower and finally vanishes (threshold), causing the ball to abruptly roll to the left. The curvature of the well is inversely proportional to the system's response time τ to small perturbations. “Degenerate fingerprinting” (102) extracts τ from the system's noisy, multivariate time series and forecasts the vanishing of local curvature. (B) Degenerate fingerprinting “in action”: Shown is an example for the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. (Upper) Overturning strength under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years in the CLIMBER-2 model with weak, stochastic freshwater forcing. Eventually, the circulation collapses without early warning. (Lower) Overturning replaced by a proxy of the shape of the potential (as in A). Although the signal is noisier in Lower than it is in Upper, it allows forecasting of the location of the threshold (data taken from ref. 102). The solid green line is a linear fit, and the dashed green lines are 95% error bars.

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