Around the world, many of us fear a climate tipping point. But a tipping point might not be as bad as we’re expecting, according to the authors of a new study.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tipping point as “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.” But a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters concludes that a climate tipping point could be more nuanced, possibly affecting just part of a system rather than the whole planet.
The researchers studied large, spatially heterogeneous systems such as forests, lakes and ice sheets. In the paper “Fragmented tipping in a spatially heterogeneous world,” researchers explain that a tipping point’s severity depends on the heterogeneity and spatial size of the system. Larger and more heterogeneous systems might experience minor, even reversible changes.
This minor dose of good news doesn’t mean the study’s authors are gleefully charging toward tipping points. “I am still worried about tipping points,” wrote lead author Robbin Bastiaansen. “Because I can imagine critical things might happen especially as climate change persists. But I am not as worried that once we cross a tipping point, everything is going to hell immediately. I think it is going to be much more subtle than the kind of narrative that has been painted in some papers about planetary boundaries: that once we cross over one tipping point everything just collapses simultaneously. I don’t think that is the case.”
To better understand Bastiaansen et al.’s idea, let’s compare a little pond with a large lake. The smaller body of water has little variation (i.e. heterogeneity), so if it experiences a harmful algal bloom, soon the whole pond is sullied. However, in a larger body of water, some parts might be green with algae while others are fine. And if you’re able to treat the bloom, you can restore the lake.
In short, we might still avert humanity’s doom. But let’s stop pushing our luck.
Lead image via TiPES/HP