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Overshooting tipping point thresholds in a changing climate

Abstract

Palaeorecords suggest that the climate system has tipping points, where small changes in forcing cause substantial and irreversible alteration to Earth system components called tipping elements. As atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise as a result of fossil fuel burning, human activity could also trigger tipping, and the impacts would be difficult to adapt to. Previous studies report low global warming thresholds above pre-industrial conditions for key tipping elements such as ice-sheet melt. If so, high contemporary rates of warming imply that exceeding these thresholds is almost inevitable, which is widely assumed to mean that we are now committed to suffering these tipping events. Here we show that this assumption may be flawed, especially for slow-onset tipping elements (such as the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) in our rapidly changing climate. Recently developed theory indicates that a threshold may be temporarily exceeded without prompting a change of system state, if the overshoot time is short compared to the effective timescale of the tipping element. To demonstrate this, we consider transparently simple models of tipping elements with prescribed thresholds, driven by global warming trajectories that peak before returning to stabilize at a global warming level of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. These results highlight the importance of accounting for timescales when assessing risks associated with overshooting tipping point thresholds.

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Fig. 1: Comparison between slow- and fast-onset tipping elements.
Fig. 2: Illustration of overshooting a threshold in a model for the AMOC.
Fig. 3: Boundary curves separating safe and unsafe overshoots that start at current warming levels and return to stabilize at the 1.5 °C Paris Climate Agreement target.
Fig. 4: Boundaries of safe overshoots for multiple tipping points.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the European Research Council ‘Emergent Constraints on Climate-Land feedbacks in the Earth System (ECCLES)’ project, grant agreement number 742472 (P.D.L.R., J.J.C. and P.M.C.). P.M.C. was also supported by the European Union’s Framework Programme Horizon 2020 for Research and Innovation under grant agreement number 821003, Climate-Carbon Interactions in the Current Century (4C) project. C.H. acknowledges the Natural Environment Research Council National Capability Fund awarded to the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

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P.D.L.R. and P.M.C. designed and directed the research. All authors helped to shape the research and drafted the manuscript through weekly virtual meetings. P.D.L.R. performed the analysis and produced the figures and animations.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul D. L. Ritchie.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Tamás Bódai, Anna von der Heydt & Ingrid van de Leemput for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Video 1

: Comparison between fast and slow onset tipping elements as shown in Figure 1 of Ritchie et al. (2021).

Supplementary Video 2

: Illustration of overshooting a tipping point threshold in a model for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) as shown in Figure 2 of Ritchie et al. (2021).

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Ritchie, P.D.L., Clarke, J.J., Cox, P.M. et al. Overshooting tipping point thresholds in a changing climate. Nature 592, 517–523 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03263-2

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