Global warming and climate change are often seen as small gradual changes relative to the amount of greenhouse gases being released. However, many of the Earth’s systems are on the brink of major changes, to the point of no return. These are called ‘tipping points.’
A tipping point is the period at which a small change becomes enough to cause a larger, irreversible change which leads to an uncontrollable domino effect. Tipping points work so rapidly that whole systems can collapse in a very short period of time.
Here are some climate tipping points:
- Permafrost: is frozen soil that stores nearly twice as much carbon than the atmosphere. Warming global temperatures thaw permafrost and release its carbon. This leads to more global warming and then further thawing of permafrost, creating a dangerous feedback loop. Unfortunately, the permafrost has crossed its tipping point.
- Boreal forests: are located in cold climates, make up 30% of the world’s forests and store more than a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon. They are warming rapidly which could lead to forest die-back and expose its permafrost below. This would release lots of carbon into the air and by reducing snow cover, the darker surface area would cause further global warming.
- Atlantic circulation: is a massive underwater current in the Atlantic powered by changes in the ocean’s temperature and saltiness. The famous Gulf Stream makes up part of this circulation system. As the planet warms and ice melts, the increase in water causes the current to slow down. If the Atlantic circulation shuts down, it would cause significant climate changes such as changes in the African and Asian monsoons, and potentially trigger other tipping points.
- Coral reefs: home to more than one quarter of all marine fish species have experienced mass coral ‘bleaching’ due to warming oceans. Warm water makes coral expel their algae which then causes them to turn white. Repeated bleaching eventually causes coral to die. The complete loss of coral reefs would devastate the ocean’s biodiversity and fisheries, the latter which support the livelihoods of 500 million people.
- Amazon rainforest: is home to millions of plant and wildlife species, stores 200 billion tons of carbon and has its own self-sustained rainfall cycles that keep it in balance. Extreme deforestation is pushing the Amazon closer to its tipping point. If crossed, its rainfall cycles would fail causing the rainforest to die back and transform the environment. The process would release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, cause biodiversity loss and change global weather patterns.
- Ice sheets and sea ice: are melting from warming temperatures, causing the earth’s surface to darken and absorb more of the sun’s energy. Heat is then radiated into the atmosphere which leads to further warming and even more ice to melt. This cycle would make meltdown of major ice sheets such as in the Antarctic unstoppable, raising sea level in the process.
Every fraction of a degree matters
When it comes to climate tipping points, every fraction of a degree of warming matters. This is because it is so hard to predict which small change will be the trigger for a tipping point. The best way to limit global warming is to slow down our pace of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by reducing extraction, production, energy use and waste, whilst also giving back to our planet to regenerate the systems we are knocking out of balance.
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