Analyzing abrupt and nonlinear climate changes and their impacts



The Earth system shows the tendency to change in nonlinear and sometimes abrupt ways; small changes in external forcing can lead to large and perhaps irreversible changes in outcome. The prospect of crossing important ‘tipping points’ and realizing their impacts poses unique challenges to decision makers within society, hoping to avoid damaging anthropogenic influence on Earth systems. Abrupt and nonlinear changes are by their very nature highly uncertain and difficult to predict, and so hard to avoid or adapt to. After briefly introducing key concepts in nonlinear dynamics, we summarize paleoclimate evidence for past abrupt and nonlinear changes in major Earth systems such as, ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, sea ice and terrestrial ice sheets, atmospheric composition, and the terrestrial biosphere. For each of these systems we then review observational, theoretical, and modeling evidence for potential future abrupt changes, and associated impacts. We outline the extra challenges that are faced in predicting abrupt or nonlinear as opposed to more gradual climate change, and in providing a risk analysis for their impacts on Earth and societal systems. We examine the potential for early warning systems of abrupt change, and discuss differences in attitude to risk which may dictate societal response to low probability–high impact events. Finally, we outline the promising directions of research needed to better quantify the risk of abrupt and nonlinear climate change. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 663–686 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.130

This article Analyzing abrupt and nonlinear climate changes and their impacts was written by Doug McNeall, Paul R. Halloran, Peter Good and Richard A. Betts of Met Office Hadley Centre. It is published with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

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