7 Climate Tipping Points You Should Be Aware Of

A meter showing how close we are to reaching various climate tipping points.

Climate tipping points are a confusing topic for most.

How much can the average person really help stop or slow down climate change?

Let’s go over some of the most pressing tipping point examples, and talk about how they may impact you.

Changes in our world’s climate are a bit scary – but we still have time to take drastic action, and gaining an understanding of these tipping points is the first step.

So, what is a tipping point?

What is a climate tipping point?

Within climate science, tipping points are points of no return – beyond which a chain reaction of potentially irreversible things happens. Meaning, there’s most likely no coming back from these kinds of changes in our climate and ecosystems.

Earth’s climate is a network of different natural elements that work together to maintain a harmonious system; things humans used to take for granted like healthy forests, relatively stable weather, and seasons.

healthy fall forest

When one of these elements (which we’ll cover next) reaches its tipping point, it tends to affect all other elements as well, forming a cascade of negative effects. And these changes can happen very fast, so it’s critical that we identify these points and work towards avoiding it.

As global average temperatures approach 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, we’re now entering dangerous new territory in which many of these climate elements are at risk of tipping the scales of climate change.

Why does runaway climate change matter?

There’s a lot of talk about global temperatures rising above 1.5°C and the dangers of crossing that number – but what does it all mean?

Wherever one lives, local temperatures already fluctuate so often; it’s hard to make sense of such small numbers affecting the entire planet. But the Earth, much like the human body, has an average temperature that doesn’t often change naturally.

While daily changes in temperature or weather occur, global average temperatures have remained relatively stable; the Earth is able to regulate its own temperature on a 100,000 year timescale.

mt jefferson storm clouds

And much like the human body, a shift of more than a degree or two can cause significant damage to complex systems that keep the climate stable; kind of like how a fever can ravage a human’s body in a short period of time.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, authored by 91 experts from over 40 countries. Inside this report is a roadmap for governments all over the world to handle climate change, and “1.5°C” specifically refers to the increase in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

For those living in areas with a 60°C seasonal range in temperatures, especially for those who use the Fahrenheit scale, 1.5°C doesn’t mean much. The real issue is that some areas of the world will face more drastic shifts in temperature and climate than others.

Current projections estimate us breaching 1.5°C by 2027. A scary thought for sure, however, we’re also simultaneously facing the danger of stepping over the thresholds for multiple ecological tipping points as well.

What climate tipping points are within reach?

No special switch exists that will be triggered at 1.5°C; climate elements change at different times and in response to varying things happening around the world. The 1.5°C threshold simply represents a point by which the effects may become irreversible. With that being said, here are the seven key climate tipping points that are usually discussed:

Extreme weather events occurring more often. The first and most obvious environmental tipping point for most of us will be extreme weather events and changes in weather patterns throughout the seasons.

This is already taking place in most areas of the world, of course. Forest fires are devastating important forest ecosystems, burning for longer periods of time due to drought, and affecting more than twice as much tree cover compared to 20 years ago.

A forest set ablaze by the Pioneer Fire in Idaho, USA.

Increases in average temperatures have affected the severity and frequency of extreme drought, leading to the desertification of deforested land – whether or not it was caused by humans or wildfire. This also has the added effect of reducing the future fertility of soils now exposed to the elements.

Extreme heat waves, a now-commonplace events in drought-stricken areas, are threatening to make large areas of our planet uninhabitable in the near future. Wetter events like floods, hurricanes, and monsoons are also both becoming more violent and occuring more often, forcing entire communities to relocate as environmental refugees.

Sea levels rising. The disappearance of the world’s coastlines are one of the most widely known tipping points, with sea levels rising steadily since the 1800’s with no sign of slowing down.

A graph showing the global average sea level rise between 1880 and 2020.

This is partially due to the thermal expansion of our warming oceans and the ability of Earth’s seas to absorb excess heat; although, there is a limit to how much excess heat the ocean can absorb.

thermal expansion: water expands as it warms up

As a warming body of water, our oceans are starting to creep up the shoreline, threatening to slowly destroy coastal cities all over the world. In some cases, entire island communities may be engulfed without drastic community action.

flooded neighborhood

Coupled with more extreme weather events like yearly hurricanes, higher sea levels are bringing the destruction deeper inland. Thermal expansion isn’t the only contributor to rising sea levels, however, as massive amounts of melting ice plays a role too.

Sea ice sheets melting. The rapid melting of ice sheets spells disaster for all Arctic species, including the human communities living within these icy regions. The most immediate and obvious issue is the loss of habitat for animals that rely completely on ice to go about their lives.

Polar bears, walruses, and various other animals depend on these ecosystems for food and shelter; with a majority of polar bear subpopulations predicted to be extinct by the end of the century. Pacific walruses are also under threat, another species of iconic animals that require ice cover to survive.

A herd of walruses relaxing on some rapidly thawing sea ice sheets.

Ice also has a strong albedo effect, which reflects heat and helps keep our planet cool – meaning, the melting of sea ice removes its reflective ability and uncovers the absorptive ocean underneath, accelerating global temperature increases.

albedo effect: the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight

The arctic alone holds enough water to raise sea levels by multiple meters – a region warming almost four times faster than the rest of the world. Melting ice is the single biggest contributor to sea level rise, and a serious threat in terms of the next tipping point: the release of what’s inside the ice itself.

Permafrost thawing. Wherever sheets of ice cover the land, hidden dangers beyond rising sea levels exist within thawing permafrost. As the name suggests, permafrost is a permanently-frozen landmass separated from our atmosphere by the sheets of ice themselves or layers of organic material.

A huge chunk of thawing permafrost breaks off from a shoreline.

Permafrost exists as a frozen section of earth containing large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide (CO2), among other things. These greenhouse gasses are trapped within the ice and frozen land, at risk of being released into the atmosphere if temperatures rise high enough for the permafrost to melt.

Aside from that, melting permafrost may release other chemical, biological, and radioactive materials that have been stored for thousands of years upon melting; materials that have the potential to negatively impact both wild ecosystems and the health of human communities.

There are tens of thousands of contaminated or hazardous waste storage sites within the Arctic, with a majority of them at risk of thawing alongside surrounding permafrost layers within the end of the century – a relatively unknown ecological tipping point.

Ecosystems collapsing. Every ecosystem on the planet is threatened by the destruction of natural habitats due to tipping points in the climate system. Changes in weather patterns and extreme events aren’t the only issue, either; with ecosystem collapse being one of the more heart-wrenching examples of tipping points.

A pine forest damaged by pine beetles.

For example, coral reefs have been suffering from mass coral bleaching events – with expectations of complete collapse around 2°C of warming. In general, we’re seeing staggering amounts of biodiversity loss; with worldwide declines in insect species populations, bringing concerns of future famine into play.

A partially collapsed coral reef, suffering from a bleaching event.

The natural world is also threatened by a man-made apocalypse: vast amounts of non-recyclable plastic trash found in even the most “pristine” environments you may step foot into. Plastic simply breaks into smaller, more difficult to avoid microplastics instead of degrading over time – these tiny particles have been shown to negatively impact animal reproductive health.

Drastic changes in the environment mean that entire regions of terrestrial land are expected to swap from one type of ecosystem to another. For example, a forest may become a savanna, a savanna turns to desert, or wetlands may suffer from floods.

Changes in the Gulf Stream and other currents. The Gulf Stream is a part of a system of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation – simply put, it’s what circulates heat from tropical regions towards the poles. Melting ice water in the poles dilutes the salinity of water within these currents, slowing them down.

coastal storm

Meaning, the Atlantic current is already weakening. A shutdown of these currents could lead to significantly worse weather overall, however, it’s also one of the hardest tipping points to predict, leading to much controversy. Changes in the Atlantic current’s behavior have already been suggested as the cause of a decline of productive fisheries along the northwest coast of the US.

Some even claim that a stalled Atlantic current could plunge Europe into another ice age, due to a significant cooling of northern Eruope and a drying of the global south.

The desertification of the Amazon Rainforest. Rainforests like the Amazon have long been described as the “lungs of the Earth” due to the vast amount of oxygen they produce and their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

The condition of these lungs is now in question, with at least some regions of the Amazon creating more CO2 than it’s absorbing. Longer, more intense dry seasons mean more forest fires – fewer trees means a reduction in overall oxygen production.

A riverside scene in the Amazon rainforest with a cloudy forested bank of trees.
Image by F. Delventhal via Flickr

This may even be one tipping point that’s already been crossed, and could lead to a cascade of effects like sharp rises in local temperatures or even droughts in the US and other regions of the world.

Other side effects of losing ecosystems like the Amazon include the loss of traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous communities, the displacement of millions of people, and the destruction of poorly-studied animal cultures that exist nowhere else.

You may not even be aware of how you’re currently contributing to this, either. The reality is, your daily life and diet is most likely filled with various products and foods from the rainforest – things like coffee, chocolate, or even your toilet paper.

Is there any positive climate tipping point news?

All of this talk about rapidly approaching apocalyptic scenarios may have led you down the depressing path of climate grief. While it may not be possible to avoid hitting the 1.5°C threshold, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to make more impactful choices.

Future generations depend on us to make the right choices today, so they can enjoy even just some of the wonders we currently can still be a part of. Slowing down our mitigation efforts only ensures the destruction of our climate.

An outdoors NPS workshop educating teachers about salamanders.

The good news is, we have a roadmap specifically designed to make the necessary changes. Multiple pathways forward exist – some more realistic than others. Ultimately, the time for incremental changes has passed. We need radical shifts in our approach to these tipping points, which includes our consumptive lifestyles.

Two of the more accessible ways in which you can help revolve around two topics:

  • Rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels
  • Ending our reliance on animal products

Both of these monumental tasks require both public support and government action; the best thing you can do as an individual is educate others and live an informed, sustainable lifestyle. Climate activism is expanding around the world, with growing movements supporting ideas like a general climate lockdown, although plenty of less-involved options exist.

The best thing you can do for yourself if you’re feeling a bit of climate anxiety or grief is to get involved. Any skill you have can be used to help; the extent of your efforts could be as little as learning how to go vegan if you’re pressed for time, to seeking out some of the best paying jobs in energy if you’re in a position to look for a new career.

Your personal carbon footprint matters, but it’s also important to stay vigilant and aware of propaganda published to support climate change denialism – as these kinds of movements directly damage the credibility of science-based environmental organizations trying to learn more about our world’s tipping points.

Final thoughts

Our world lies in the balance, with a long list of concerning environmental disasters closing in on us.

Strengthening public engagement around climate change, demanding more from our leaders, and making changes in our lives will all be required soon if we want to change directions.

Which climate change tipping point concerns you the most?

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