One of the questions that came in recently via Instagram was on the topic of "Tipping Points", and what in the name of god are they - that is not verbatim, but I am three coffees deep and I will let the brain run!
For me over the last few years being engrossed in all things sustainability & climate change, from how it impacts migration to disease - I have tried my best to ultimately simplify each idea down to its most basic form (mainly so brain can comprehend the issues).
When it came to 'Tipping Points', my brain oddly went towards drink... I am sure we have all been there, when you're in the pub, and you're more than merry and feeling like you should hit the road and say your [Irish] goodbye[s] before you do any harm...
However, as most of us tend to ultimately proclaim, 'ah sure I'll have one more for the road' - and with this one more, your brain goes from merry to dysfunctional - for me, this is how I comprehended the 'Tipping Point' idea...
That one additional drink can send you from merry, sociable and chatty to the another dimension, almost like you fell into a black hole and lost complete control of tongue and brain... or like Jenga even, with each drink taken, being similar to one block being removed - and with that final drink/block, you/the tower tumbles!
Now, that is solely just a reference, and not in any way trying to make light of the real climate 'tipping points' we actually face - but to show how one small thing, can ultimately lead to a cascade of horrendous events that we ultimately regret.
What is a 'Tipping Point'
Once these individual systems are impacted beyond a certain point, they then have the ability to impact several other systems - leading to a cascading or domino-like effect with each system having devastating impacts on our world.
Once these points are breaches, it's widely noted that they are (A) sudden and (B) irreversible.
- Loss of the Amazon rainforest: The Amazon rainforest is vital to the world in terms of sequestering emissions as it has huge capabilities in terms of storing carbon being the largest Tropical rainforest in the world spanning over half a dozen countries in South America. If the Amazon rainforest continues its dramatic decline with deforestation continuing to wreak havoc, it can re-release huge amounts of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, which can accelerate climate change even further. Not only is the release of carbon back into the atmosphere horrendous, there is scope for large-scale biodiversity loss and further 'self-destruction'. As the rainforest produces up to half of it's own moisture through rainfall recycling, the more forest cover loss, the less moisture, the more chance of the land becoming savannah like leading to the inability for trees to grow and also the increased susceptibility to forest fires.
- Thawing of permafrost: Permafrost is permanently frozen ground - which has large amounts of carbon, and even methane stored within it. As the climate warms, permafrost begins to thaw, which releases these emissions back into the atmosphere furthering climate change. One of the scary aspects of this melting is when it comes the greenhouse gas called Methane, which is under-discussed as it is 20-30 times more potent than Carbon.
- Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet: The West Antarctic ice sheet is a large block of ice that is extremely vulnerable to collapse due to rising temperatures. If the ice sheet collapses, it could cause sea levels to rise by up to 3 metres according to Carbon Brief, as the sheet itself is up to 4km thick in parts. which can have devastating impacts on coastal communities across the world with major cities being potentially washed away which can lead to migration and economic disasters. The same issue is occurring across Greenlands ice sheets as well, which can lead to 7m of sea level rise, again according to Carbon Brief.
- Changes in ocean circulation: The ocean plays a critical role in regulating the Earth's temperature with the impacts varying across the world. Changes in ocean circulation and ocean currents can be a huge disrupter to people all over the world based on the density of water and the temperature of the water due to thermal expansion and salty water being heavier than warmer fresh water. With melting ice sheets diluting the salinity of the oceans, circulation is slowed down which disrupts how ocean currents move warm water North and cool water South. Therefore, we can see cooling in the North Atlantic and warming in the Southern Hemisphere, which can then affect weather patterns and with that, the change of weather patterns potentially leading to storms, drought, increased rainfall all with the ability to impact nations economically, agriculturally.
- Changes to Monsoon Seasons: Focusing on monsoons in India and the Sahel region, monsoon season can provide between 70%-90% of the annual rainfall an area receives each year. This rainfall is crucial for the agricultural sector, especially when it comes to the increasingly growing population of India which currently sits at 1.3 billion people. As Climate Change is unpredictable, certain regions may face increased levels of rainfall, which can destroy agriculture, whilst others may face drought, which can also impact agriculture - it's a complicated relationship. When it comes to the Sahel Region in Africa, some scientists actually expect benefits to occur to the largely bare, dry and uninhabitable region whereby increased rains can lead to the growth of vegetation in the area - assisting with trade and perhaps even assisting with the area becoming habitable.
Coral reef die-off: Coral reefs are often noted as being one of the most at risk/sensitive eco-systems when it comes to global warming and climate change. With mass bleaching occurring, due to warming temperatures, coral reefs are beginning to stave with various sources citing that reefs world-wide are five times more likely to bleach than that of four and five decades ago. There are also other issues which are impacting Coral Reefs including over-fishing, destructive fishing practices that destroy habitats to general ocean acidification. Again with all things climate change, one change has the ability to impact a variety of elements with coral reef die off having the ability to impact livelihoods economically and health & wellbeing due to lack of access to food sources then with over half a billion people being cited as reliant on coral reefs. Lastly, the more coral reefs are impacted and damaged, the more carbon that was stored, gets released again spiralling emissions across the world.
Overall, climate tipping points can lead to drastic impacts on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. To avoid reaching these tipping points and to mitigate their impacts, it is important that are leaders and governments make conscious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support climate adaptation and resilience efforts world-wide.