Tipping Points

Today the news fed me two tipping points for the price of one : Amazonia and plastics. There are plenty more. Dig deeper below. Meanwhile, to “quote” Greta again :

“As to basic maths skills I have not unlearnt them in my gap year. I can still see words, let alone deeds do not add up to stay within the budget. Combining faith in eternal growth with even more faith in new technologies still just leaves you with faith. If faith is all we got we might as well believe in the Good Life for All and make that happen? Or shall we wait another two generations for more goodness to trickle down and lift all boats? Most likely the oceans will have lifted the boats out of reach by then.”


The elders always say : “Nothing we could have done. You got no idea of what it was like then.” A conclusion de facto arrived at already, perhaps, not just by the minority of resisters but the majority of the willing but resigned :  there is no alternative!  Greta’s generation needs more than green cement and a solution to energy storage.  It needs alternatives all over.

The ongoing crisis of competence and legitimacy is the opportunity to remind oneself that it does not have to be like this. In spite of the incessant incantations of the incumbents there are alternatives. And plural is good.  Complexitiy requires diversity.  Most urgently economically. Not just in academia but, in the the real political economy.  Technical progress won’t be sufficient.  It’s at the structural levels of power, politics and money that innovation is most urgently needed.

This is when  TINA  always turns up: “Can’t go there, kiddo.”  Many ageing incumbents may be willing, but they are wilting. Even if they wanted to do it, they couldn’t. Too set in their ways. 

Hoping the elders are gonna sort this won’t end well.

‘Why didn’t you do something else?’ Greta’s children may well ask. ‘You couldn’t think of anything?’

There is no planet B. There better be a plan B.

Just follow the money …

theguardian.com 8-9-2022 World on brink of five ‘disastrous’ climate tipping points, study finds – Giant ice sheets, ocean currents and permafrost regions may already have passed point of irreversible change

science.org 9-2022 Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points – by David I. Armstrong McKay, Arie Staal, Jesse F. Abrams, Ricarda Winkelmann, Boris Sakschewski, Sina Loriani, Ingo Fetzer, Sarah E. Cornell, Johan Rockström, Timothy M. Lenton

CONCLUSION : Our assessment provides strong scientific evidence for urgent action to mitigate climate change. We show that even the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C is not safe as 1.5°C and above risks crossing multiple tipping points. Crossing these CTPs can generate positive feedbacks that increase the likelihood of crossing other CTPs. Currently the world is heading toward ~2 to 3°C of global warming; at best, if all net-zero pledges and nationally determined contributions are implemented it could reach just below 2°C. This would lower tipping point risks somewhat but would still be dangerous as it could trigger multiple climate tipping points.

The location of climate tipping elements in the cryosphere (blue), biosphere (green), and ocean/atmosphere (orange), and global warming levels at which their tipping points will likely be triggered. Pins are colored according to our central global warming threshold estimate being below 2°C, i.e., within the Paris Agreement range (light orange, circles); between 2 and 4°C, i.e., accessible with current policies (orange, diamonds); and 4°C and above (red, triangles).

independent   28/7/2021 Scientists who declared climate emergency two years ago say Earth’s vital signs have worsened – ‘It’s surprising that climate change impacts are happening so fast around the world,’ lead scientist tells The Independent  by  Daisy Dunne

Earlier this year, a study showed that the rainforest in Brazil released about 20% more CO2 into the atmosphere than it took in over the period from 2010-2019. This new paper underlines that change and finds that some regions of the rainforest were “a steadily increasing source” of carbon between 2010 and 2018. A source of carbon is an area of the Earth that releases more carbon than it stores. The researchers used aircraft to take around 600 air samples above selected parts of the rainforest over the years of the study. They found a very clear division between the eastern and western parts of the rainforest.

“In the eastern part of the Amazon, which is around 30% deforested, this region emitted 10 times more carbon then in the west, which is around 11% deforested,” said lead author Luciana Gatti, with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). “This is a huge impact, you know directly because we are emitting CO2 to the atmosphere, which is accelerating climate change but also because it is promoting changes in the dry season conditions and stress to trees that will produce even more emissions. This is terrible negative feedback that increases the emissions much more than we knew.” The researchers say that the forest in the south-east of the Amazon have been very badly hit by deforestation and climate change. In this area, temperatures have increased in the two hottest months of the year by 3.07C – this is around the same increase seen in the Arctic and around three times the global average. “This is amazing,” said Dr Gatti. “It’s a complete surprise for the equator layer of the globe.” …

Other scientists who work in this field say that the latest findings are consistent with changes that a range of studies have already shown.

“Deforestation and degradation increase, while the carbon sink of intact forests is stable or is slightly increasing,” said Dr Jean-Pierre Wigneron from France’s Institut National de Recherche Agronomiques (INRA). “So, finding a negative carbon budget is not so surprising.”

Nancy Harris, from the World Resources Institute (WRI), who has co-authored previous research into the same area, said: “At the end of the day, debating whether the region already is a source – or is teetering precariously on the edge of becoming a source for carbon dioxide – misses the point. “The science is now clear that the Amazon is in trouble. High emissions from deforestation have plagued the region for decades, and climate change impacts on forests like drought, fire and heat-induced die-offs will become more and more common over the coming decade.”

nature.com 14/7/2021 Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change Luciana V. Gatti etal

Abstract: Amazonia hosts the Earth’s largest tropical forests and has been shown to be an important carbon sink over recent decades. This carbon sink seems to be in decline, however, as a result of factors such as deforestation and climate change. Here we investigate Amazonia’s carbon budget and the main drivers responsible for its change into a carbon source. We performed 590 aircraft vertical profiling measurements of lower-tropospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide at four sites in Amazonia from 2010 to 20184. We find that total carbon emissions are greater in eastern Amazonia than in the western part, mostly as a result of spatial differences in carbon-monoxide-derived fire emissions. Southeastern Amazonia, in particular, acts as a net carbon source (total carbon flux minus fire emissions) to the atmosphere. Over the past 40 years, eastern Amazonia has been subjected to more deforestation, warming and moisture stress than the western part, especially during the dry season, with the southeast experiencing the strongest trends. We explore the effect of climate change and deforestation trends on carbon emissions at our study sites, and find that the intensification of the dry season and an increase in deforestation seem to promote ecosystem stress, increase in fire occurrence, and higher carbon emissions in the eastern Amazon. This is in line with recent studies that indicate an increase in tree mortality and a reduction in photosynthesis as a result of climatic changes across Amazonia.

independent.co.uk 13/7/2021 Plastic pollution is nearing irreversible tipping point, experts warn – Biodiversity loss, rising temperatures and increased toxicity for oceans and wider society if emissions continue by Gino Spocchia

In an article published in Science, scientists from Sweden, Norway and Germany wrote that there were “enormous” consequences for continuing to throw away plastics, which continue to be “poorly” recycled. Figures for plastic waste entering the environment by 2025 are in the region of 9 and 23 metric tonnes per year, with warnings that by 2050, the world’s oceans and seas will be filled with more plastic than fish. …

science.sciencemag.org 2/7/2021 The global threat from plastic pollution Matthew MacLeod, Hans Peter H. Arp, Mine B. Tekman, Annika Jahnke

Abstract: Plastic pollution accumulating in an area of the environment is considered “poorly reversible” if natural mineralization processes occurring there are slow and engineered remediation solutions are improbable. Should negative outcomes in these areas arise as a consequence of plastic pollution, they will be practically irreversible. Potential impacts from poorly reversible plastic pollution include changes to carbon and nutrient cycles; habitat changes within soils, sediments, and aquatic ecosystems; co-occurring biological impacts on endangered or keystone species; ecotoxicity; and related societal impacts. The rational response to the global threat posed by accumulating and poorly reversible plastic pollution is to rapidly reduce plastic emissions through reductions in consumption of virgin plastic materials, along with internationally coordinated strategies for waste management.

scitechdaily.com 10/7/2021 Global Plastic Pollution May Be Nearing an Irreversible Tipping Point By STOCKHOLM UNIVERSITY

Current rates of plastic emissions globally may trigger effects that we will not be able to reverse, argues a new study by researchers from Sweden, Norway and Germany published on July 2nd in Science. According to the authors, plastic pollution is a global threat, and actions to drastically reduce emissions of plastic to the environment are “the rational policy response.”

Plastic is found everywhere on the planet: from deserts and mountaintops to deep oceans and Arctic snow. As of 2016, estimates of global emissions of plastic to the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans ranged from 9 to 23 million metric tons per year, with a similar amount emitted onto land yearly. These estimates are expected to almost double by 2025 if business-as-usual scenarios apply. …

“The world promotes technological solutions for recycling and to remove plastic from the environment. As consumers, we believe that when we properly separate our plastic trash, all of it will magically be recycled. Technologically, recycling of plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructures have been exporting their plastic waste to countries with worse facilities. Reducing emissions requires drastic actions, like capping the production of virgin plastic to increase the value of recycled plastic, and banning export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling” says Tekman.” …

news.mongabay.com 15/7/ 2021 As Arctic warms, scientists wrestle with its climate ‘tipping point’ by Conrad Fox

  • A leaked version of the newest science report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of looming, potentially catastrophic tipping points for Arctic sea ice melt, tundra thaw, savannification of the Amazon rainforest, and other planetary environmental thresholds beyond which recovery may be impossible.
  • But what are tipping points, and how does one pinpoint what causes them, or when they will occur? When studying a vast region, like the Arctic, answering these questions becomes dauntingly difficult, as complex positive feedback loops (amplifying climate warming impacts) and negative feedback loops (retarding them) collide with each other.
  • In the Arctic, one working definition of a climatic tipping point is when nearly all sea ice disappears in summer, causing a Blue Ocean Event. But attempts to model when a Blue Ocean Event will occur have run up against chaotic and complex feedback loop interactions.
  • Among these are behaviors of ocean currents, winds, waves, clouds, snow cover, sea ice shape, permafrost melt, subarctic wildfires, aerosols and more, with many interactions still poorly understood. Some scientists say too much focus is going to tipping points, and research should be going to the “radical uncertainty” of escalating extreme local events.

For Arctic scientists, the summer of 2007 changed everything. That’s when, for the first time in history, record warmth melted the Northwest Passage, nearly opening it to shipping; turned a portion of the East Siberian Sea the size of Mexico into open ocean; and shrank the polar ice cap to a size never before reached so early in the March-to-September melt season, as documented by satellite since 1979.

blog.metoffice.gov.uk 16/7/2021 There is one climate topic that you’re likely to hear a lot about this year: tipping points.

In the context of climate science, a tipping point can occur when a relatively small change can have a large and irreversible effect on some of the Earth’s largest systems, such as the Antarctic ice sheets or the Amazon rainforest.

In the first post in our series on tipping points, we looked at the definition of tipping points. In the second of our series we literally go from pole to pole to examine the potential for huge change in the oceans and the cryosphere – the Earth’s wealth of ice.

Professor Tim Lenton – from the University of Exeter – is a world-renowned expert on tipping points. One tipping element (bits of the climate system that could pass a tipping point) that stands out as high risk for Professor Tim Lenton, is West Antarctica. Here there is physical evidence consistent with possibly having passed the tipping point for irreversible retreat of part of the ice sheet. Destabilization of the West Antarctica ice sheet could lead to about a three-metre sea-level-rise on a timescale of centuries to millennia. In a wider study Tim suggests that part of the East Antarctic ice sheet might similarly be unstable, with the potential to add another 3-4 m to sea level on timescales beyond a century.

He said: “We might already have committed future generations to living with sea-level rises of around 10 m over thousands of years. But that timescale is still under our control. The rate of melting depends on the magnitude of warming above the tipping point. More observational data will establish whether ice sheets are reaching a tipping point, and better developed models are needed to resolve how soon and how fast the ice sheets could collapse.”

The global pattern of ocean circulation brings warm water into the North Atlantic and returns colder denser water southward. A global pump known as the Atlantic Meriodional Overturning Circulation.

Perhaps one tipping element more than any other attracts regular media headlines: the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This huge conveyor belt brings warm salty water from the tropics into the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic. A weakening or collapse of this current could have devastating impacts on the climate of the northern Atlantic region, potentially switching off the transport of warm conditions to northern Europe.

Dr Richard Wood, head of cryosphere and oceans group at the Met Office Hadley Centre, explains: “If we were to add fresh water to the North Atlantic – such as from melting glaciers or increased precipitation run-off, for example – you would make the surface water fresher and less dense, weakening the ‘pump’ that drives the ocean circulation.”

carbonbrief.org 2/2020 Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change

The persistent march of a warming climate is seen across a multitude of continuous, incremental changes. CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Ocean heat contentGlobal sea level rise. Each creeps up year after year, fuelled by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. And while climate records are being routinely broken, the cumulative impact of these changes could also cause fundamental parts of the Earth system to change dramatically and irreversibly. These “tipping points” are thresholds where a tiny change could push a system into a completely new state.


The term “tipping point” itself was popularised by journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name, published in 2000. Gladwell describes tipping points as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, and explores examples throughout human society:

“There was a tipping point for [declining] violent crime in New York in the early 1990s, and a tipping point for the reemergence of Hush Puppies, just as there is a tipping point for the introduction of any new technology.”


In the years since, the term has been used increasingly in scientific circles. However, this has not been without controversy. There are, for example, many different views on how the term should be defined and used, explains Collins:

“There has been an intensive debate in the field of tipping points, abrupt change and irreversibility about the definitions of these terms. They range from the very mathematical to those which are intended to be understood by policymakers.”

According to a 2009 paper on the use of the term “tipping points” in climate science and the media, a presentation (pdf) in 2005 by Dr James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute helped “initiate a tipping point trend in climate change communication that was quickly reflected in public debate”. 

In Hansen’s talk – a tribute to scientist Prof Charles Keeling, given at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting – Hansen warned that “we are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption”.

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