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Nature & Environment Abrupt Climate Change Tipping Points Could Spell Surprising Disasters for Future

Abrupt Climate Change Tipping Points Could Spell Surprising Disasters for Future

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First Posted: Dec 04, 2013 07:18 AM EST
Antarctica
Scientists have created the most complete map of Antarctica to date. The new satellite image could inform researchers all over the globe as they examine the effects of climate change. (Photo : University of Exeter/ Neil Ross)

Climate change is occurring across the globe, causing some areas to become warmer while others turn drier or even shift to wetter climates. Scientists have long worried that large and rapid changes in the physical climate system, which includes Earth's atmosphere, land surfaces and oceans, could occur within a few decades or even years. Now, a new report extends this idea of rapid climate change and has stated that even steady, gradual change can have abrupt impacts elsewhere.

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"Research has helped us begin to distinguish more imminent threats from those that are less likely to happen this century," said James W.C. White, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Evaluating climate changes and impacts in terms of their potential magnitude and the likelihood they will occur will help policymakers and communities make informed decisions about how to prepare for or adapt to them."

This abrupt climate change isn't some future occurrence, either. It's already underway. The disappearance of late-summer Arctic sea ice and the increases in extinction rates in both marine and terrestrial species are current causes for concern. Yet future scenarios may be even more devastating. The destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet could have major consequences, for example, though researchers are still unsure about the probability of that occurring within the next century.

The new report actually highlights the importance of refining predictions to better prepare for climate change. But it also reveals what certain high-impact climate changes are likely and unlikely to happen within the next century. For example, a shutdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns or a rapid release of methane from high-latitude permafrost or undersea ice are unlikely to occur.

Yet what is likely is the crossing of tipping points that can impact both wildlife and people. For example, a gradual increase in sea level rise can affect local infrastructure such as roads, airports, pipelines or subway systems.  In addition, slight increases in ocean acidity or surface temperatures could cross thresholds beyond which many species cannot survive.

"Right now we don't know what many of these thresholds are," said White in a news release. "But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences."

The report can be found online here.

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