Cascading Climate System Domino Feedback Effects, NOT Good

Cascading Climate System Domino Feedback Effects, NOT Good // Jun 4, 2021

A new peer-reviewed scientific paper published June 3rd discusses the risks of climate domino effects from cascading feedbacks. Essentially, the risk is rapidly increasing to cross critical thresholds for one or more tipping elements in the climate system.

Although there are numerous tipping points in the climate system, this paper used Monte Carlo computer simulations to examine the physical interactions between only 4 tipping elements: namely 1) Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) collapse, 2) West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapse, 3) Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) shutdown, and 4) Amazon Rainforest collapse.

This paper is a great start to examining cascading tipping points, but in my opinion it needs to incorporate many other tipping points to be really useful, most notably the paper egregiously ignores Arctic Sea Ice collapse to the dreaded Blue Ocean Event (BOE), and Methane Outbursts from both the Arctic terrestrial permafrost (riskiest being the Siberian Yedoma regions) and the subsea permafrost (riskiest being the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) regions and the methane bound in hydrates (methane clathrates)).

For each of the tipping elements examined, the paper considers the essential factors of critical temperature thresholds, tipping element interaction mechanisms and strengths, and tipping timescales.

The most significant and worrying result of this new paper is the following:

For global warming up to 2.0C above pre-industrial, tipping occurs in 61% of all the simulations. This 61% is further broken down to: one individual element tips in 22% of all of the simulations; cascading effects cause tipping in two elements in 21% of the cases; cascading tips three elements in 15% of the simulations; and all four elements tip via cascading in 3% of all the simulations.

For global warming of 1.0C (already passed) the GIS has already likely tipped.

Meanwhile, for global warming of 3.0C cascades are less frequent since the four elements all tip independently with temperature thresholds already exceeded.

Overall, a fascinating paper, but it is imperative that future work examine the entire gamut of tipping elements, including the four examined thus far.

Ref: Interacting tipping elements increase risk of climate domino effects under global warming, Wunderling, Donges, Kurths, Winkelmann. Published 03 June, 2021. Link to PDF here.

Abstract. With progressing global warming, there is an increased risk that one or several tipping elements in the climate system might cross a critical threshold, resulting in severe consequences for the global climate, ecosystems and human societies. While the underlying processes are fairly well-understood, it is unclear how their interactions might impact the overall stability of the Earth’s climate system. As of yet, this cannot be fully analyzed with state-of-the-art Earth system models due to computational constraints as well as some missing and uncertain process representations of certain tipping elements.

Here, we explicitly study the effects of known physical interactions among the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the Amazon rainforest using a conceptual network approach. We analyze the risk of domino effects being triggered by each of the individual tipping elements under global warming in equilibrium experiments. In these experiments, we propagate the uncertainties in critical temperature thresholds, interaction strengths and interaction structure via large ensembles of simulations in a Monte Carlo approach.

Overall, we find that the interactions tend to destabilize the network of tipping elements. Furthermore, our analysis reveals the qualitative role of each of the four tipping elements within the network, showing that the polar ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica are oftentimes the initiators of tipping cascades, while the AMOC acts as a mediator transmitting cascades. This indicates that the ice sheets, which are already at risk of transgressing their temperature thresholds within the Paris range of 1.5 to 2 ◦C, are of particular importance for the stability of the climate system as a whole.

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About paulbeckwith

Well known climate science educator; Part-time Geography professor (climatology, oceanography, environmental issues), University of Ottawa. Physicist. Engineer. Master's Degree in Science in Laser Optics, Bachelors of Engineering, in Engineering Physics. Won Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario gold medal. Also interested in investment and start-ups in climate solutions, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Avid chess player, and likes restoring old homes. Married with children.
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