Daily Archives: March 25, 2008

Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System

Modern climate science tells us that increased emissions of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide, will change the climate that we are used to and have consequences for ecosystems and societies worldwide. A rise of just several degrees can have large and widespread impacts that dramatically alter civilization, but there are worries aside from a slow and steady rise. Climatic records show that large, widespread, and abrupt climate changes have occurred repeatedly in the past. Dr. Richard Alley of Penn State University has lectured on this topic and has used an analogy of the climate being like a drunken college student– when you don’t do much to it then it will just sit there, but if you move it around a little bit then it will stagger about and maybe fall. The last ten thousand years or so (the Holocene) has been an unusual time of relative calmness, with little variation in the climate. However, for most of the last 100,000 years, and even before, this has not been the case. One of the potential threats that comes from altering the chemistry of the atmosphere, and changing the land around to suit or needs, is the ability to flip a “climate switch” and force it between different states. Other possibilities include crossing critical thresholds, such as melting the arctic sea ice, that will have large socio-economic and/or ecological consequences. Such events have been labeled “tipping points” and many scientists (notably James Hansen of NASA, Alley, and others) have started to issue many warmings that the Earth may not respond to a new climate is a nice and steady fashion.

Continue reading