Risk of tipping the overturning circulation due to increasing rates of ice melt

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

Central elements of the climate system are at risk for crossing critical thresholds (so-called tipping points) due to future greenhouse gas emissions, leading to an abrupt transition to a qualitatively different climate with potentially catastrophic consequences. Tipping points are often associated with bifurcations, where a previously stable system state loses stability when a system parameter is increased above a well-defined critical value. However, in some cases such transitions can occur even before a parameter threshold is crossed, given that the parameter change is fast enough. It is not known whether this is the case in high-dimensional, complex systems like a state-of-the-art climate model or the real climate system. Using a global ocean model subject to freshwater forcing, we show that a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation can indeed be induced even by small-amplitude changes in the forcing, if the rate of change is fast enough. Identifying the location of critical thresholds in climate subsystems by slowly changing system parameters has been a core focus in assessing risks of abrupt climate change. This study suggests that such thresholds might not be relevant in practice, if parameter changes are not slow. Furthermore, we show that due to the chaotic dynamics of complex systems there is no well-defined critical rate of parameter change, which severely limits the predictability of the qualitative long-term behavior. The results show that the safe operating space of elements of the Earth system with respect to future emissions might be smaller than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2017989118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2021

    Research areas

  • tipping points, rate-induced tipping, abrupt climate change, overturning circulation, GLOBAL OCEAN CIRCULATION, THERMOHALINE CIRCULATION, CLIMATE, STABILITY, MODEL, BIFURCATION, SYSTEMS, POINTS

ID: 259045879