Mechanisms and impacts of Earth system tipping elements


Tipping elements are components of the Earth system which may respond nonlinearly to anthropogenic climate change by transitioning toward substantially different long-term states upon passing key thresholds or “tipping points.” In some cases, such changes could produce additional greenhouse gas emissions or radiative forcing that could compound global warming. Improved understanding of tipping elements is important for predicting future climate risks and their impacts. Here we review mechanisms, predictions, impacts, and knowledge gaps associated with 10 notable Earth system components proposed to be tipping elements. We evaluate which tipping elements are approaching critical thresholds and whether shifts may manifest rapidly or over longer timescales. Some tipping elements have a higher risk of crossing tipping points under middle-of-the-road emissions pathways and will possibly affect major ecosystems, climate patterns, and/or carbon cycling within the 21st century. However, literature assessing different emissions scenarios indicates a strong potential to reduce impacts associated with many tipping elements through climate change mitigation. The studies synthesized in our review suggest most tipping elements do not possess the potential for abrupt future change within years, and some proposed tipping elements may not exhibit tipping behavior, rather responding more predictably and directly to the magnitude of forcing. Nevertheless, uncertainties remain associated with many tipping elements, highlighting an acute need for further research and modeling to better constrain risks.

Reviews of Geophysics, 61, e2021RG000757, doi:10.1029/2021RG000757