Early warning of climate ‘tipping points’ is possible

A climate ‘tipping point’ occurs when a small change triggers a cascading set of catastrophes that upsets the entire climate system for a long time.  Examples? The melting of the Greenland ice sheet trigger accelerated sea level rise, a die back of the Amazon rainforest removes a crucial atmospheric carbon sink, and an alteration of the ocean conveyor belt shuts down the Atlantic Gulf stream.

What if you could predict a ‘tipping point’? Almost like the arrival of a hurricane or a tsunami?

Scientists at the University of Exeter in the UK believe it’s possible to come up with early warning indicators of an approaching tipping point. You wouldn’t be able to avert the tipping point — it would be far too late for that. But societies might be able to mitigate the worst of its impacts.

In a paper published in the recent online edition of the journal Nature Climate Change, Professor Tim Lenton argues that a sign of an approaching tipping point can be found  by observing the climate system. A slowing down of the climate’s ability to recover from a short term weather event indicates the approach of a critical threshold, known as a “bifurcation point.” Basically, the climate system shows strong signs of instability. By carefully observing the climate system, it’s theoretically possible to read the tea leaves for impending tipping points.

With the United Nations calling for the development of a global early warning system for natural hazards, Lenton says climate tipping points should be included since they pose significant risks and may cause other, more typical natural disasters to occur. In the case of El Niño increasing in severity in a warming world, an early warning of the impending weather shift could help agriculture adapt.