Climate change is pushing our planet’s essential systems to tipping points, where even little changes can have irreversible damage. Most scientists believe that a tipping point occurs when an environmental system is driven to a point where it can no longer recover, resulting in significant, sometimes permanent devastation.
Melting glaciers, amplifying droughts, rise in sea levels, and increasing temperatures are warning signs. The process could take decades or centuries, but once it begins, it is impossible to stop.
From collapsing ice sheets to shifting monsoons and melting permafrost, here are nine key tipping points across the Earth system.
The Atlantic Ocean’s Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) system is being disrupted by climate change
The AMOC system is part of a worldwide water and heat circulation network. Warm water flows northward from the tropics to Europe. The water cools, sinks, and returns to the equator from there. The water is warmed by global warming and diluted by freshwater runoff, especially from Greenland’s ice sheet. Because the lighter freshwater cannot sink, circulation slows. This could result in severe climate changes.
Coastlines will be significantly impacted if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) disintegrates
Since the WAIS is always in contact with water, it is particularly vulnerable to warming oceans. Warming temperatures have resulted in annual ice loss
to triple from 1997 to 2017. Its eventual collapse could result in a sea-level rise of more than 3 metres, flooding much of West Antarctica.
The WAIS is believed to have vanished between a few hundred thousand and a few million years ago when the Earth witnessed a similar warming trend.
Amazon rainforest could be on the brink of irreversibly transforming into treeless grasslands
The enormous moisture loss in the Amazon rainforest
is what drives the region’s rainfall. The rainforest’s capability to produce rain will be severely harmed by a 3°C global warming along with continued deforestation. At 4°C, savannahs are anticipated to emerge in the Amazon’s central, southern, and eastern regions.
The Amazon rainforest’s loss would have a substantial impact on global weather patterns due to its size. High CO2 emissions due to tree loss would contribute to global warming, resulting in even more severe emissions reductions.
As the world warms, the West African monsoon regions may become wetter or drier
Monsoon rains fall on West Africa and the Sahel, a stretch of grasslands between the Sahara desert and southern tropical rainforests.
In some years, the West African monsoon (WAM) can be unpredictable, resulting in drought. Warmer tropical oceans and a cooler North Atlantic are considered to be the causes of severe dry seasons.
The thawing of permafrost has a substantial impact on global warming
Permafrost is a frozen organic material and ice that blankets large areas of the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as shallow ocean regions, and has been undisturbed for thousands or even millions of years.
Permafrost contains twice the carbon content of the atmosphere. Enormous amounts of CO2 and methane are now being released at an alarming rate because some areas are 2 to 3°C warmer than they were 30 years ago.
Coral reefs are rapidly fading as a result of global warming
Rising temperatures, storms, ocean circulation shifts, overfishing and increasing acidity in oceans are all pushing coral ecosystems to crumble. Toxic algae quickly takes over the reef when corals perish, making recovery nearly impossible.
About 25 per cent of all fish species call reefs home, and the results of their habitat destruction have yet to be fully explored. The loss of coral reefs will have a devastating effect on human populations, as they offer food and shelter to more than 500 million people globally.
Climate change may cause the length and intensity of the Indian monsoon to increase
Monsoon in India is crucial for agriculture, which helps feed the country’s 1.3 billion people. Global warming and air pollution, according to recent studies, will alter the pattern and intensity. Intense rainfall and floods on the one hand and droughts on the other will severely impact agriculture patterns in the country.
Sea levels would rise globally
According to recent calculations, the planet’s second-largest ice mass is rapidly deteriorating, resulting in a yearly sea level rise of about 0.7 mm. Although a tipping point will take time to reach, irreversible collapse is likely.
Boreal forests, the world’s biggest ecosystem, under pressure from industrial development
Boreal forests, which are present south of the Arctic tundra, make up 30 per cent of the planet’s forests and are the world’s biggest ecosystem. More than a third of the planet’s carbon is stored in their pine, spruce and larch trees. But these forests are under increasing pressure from industrial development in the form of expansive logging, mining, and oil & gas exploration, among others,
Even if a tipping point is not reached, a cascading effect can wipe out an ecosystem, resulting in an existential threat to humans.
On the positive side, tipping points can be used to promote favourable human transformations such as the usage of renewable energy or the use of electric vehicles.