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16 Climate Change Tipping Points: Are Humans on Track to Solve Climate Change?

Jane Marsh - July 10, 2024

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You’ve likely heard someone mention climate change in relation to rising temperatures, with 1.5°C as the showstopping number. If humans reach this, it sounds like the Earth will never recover. However, climate scientists have defined other climate change tipping points humanity should feel invested in. 

These thresholds are critical signs that the climate crisis has caused more damage than should have ever happened in history. What are these tipping points, and what can we do about them?

What Is a Climate Change Tipping Point?

Climate science and professionals with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines a climate change tipping point as an irreversible moment of catastrophic, large-scale damage to the planet. 

These include gradual and spontaneous natural events. Scientists are attempting to use advanced technologies to identify and monitor what systems on Earth are struggling the most, preventing them from reaching these tipping points. These are several other notable qualities of tipping points, such as:

  • Self-perpetuating change
  • Time scale and abruptness
  • Spatial scale
  • Impacts

The goal is preventing the climate crisis from reaching these thresholds, implementing mitigation measures, and instigating recovery methods to heal the planet back to its healthiest form.

In 2022, global warming and the climate crisis are more destructive than ever, forcing experts to outline the most critical tipping points. They called these the nine global core and seven regional impact tipping elements. Each is measured by the event’s threshold in Celsius, time scale, and its maximum impact on global and regional temperatures. Here is what they include.

Global Core Tipping Points

Most of the global core tipping points are related to ice collapse because of how expansive these impacts are, but they include others.

1-4. Sea Ice and Ice Sheet Collapses

These are the ice sheet-related climate change tipping points and their elements:

Ice Sheet or Sea IceEstimated ThresholdEstimated TimescaleGlobal Max Impact
Greenland Sheet1.5°C global temp rise10,000 years0.13°C
West Antarctic Sheet1.5°C global temp rise2,000 years0.05°C
East Antarctic Sheet7.5°C global temp rise10,000 years0.6°C
Arctic Winter Sea Ice6.3°C global temp rise20 years0.6°C

5. Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) Collapse

The AMOC is an ocean current that balances the ocean’s salinity, stabilizes weather patterns, and controls the flow of ocean currents. Global warming will make the AMOC process less strong, changing temperatures and aquatic habitat stability. The estimated threshold for this is 4.0°C, the estimated time scale is 50 years, and the maximum global impact is reducing temperatures by -0.5°C.

6. Labrador-Irminger Seas/SPG Convection Collapse

This is a natural phenomenon occurring just under Greenland and above the AMOC. The convection in this area supports the AMOC because it forces cold water to sink. The estimated threshold for this is 1.8°C, the estimated time scale is 10 years, and the maximum global impact is reducing temperatures by -0.5°C.

7. East Antarctic Subglacial Basins Collapse

Underneath Antarctica’s massive eastern ice sheet are subglacial basins which could cave in. The estimated threshold for this is 3.0°C, the estimated time scale is 2,000 years, and the maximum global impact is increasing temperatures by 0.5°C.

8. Amazon Rainforest Dieback

The estimated threshold for this is 3.5°C, the estimated time scale is 100 years, and the maximum global impact is increasing temperatures by 0.2°C with total destruction. If this happens, most of the Amazon Rainforest would perish and become dry grasslands. This would damage biodiversity, having a catastrophic impact worldwide.

9. Boreal Permafrost Collapse

This permafrost lies in the Arctic above North America and Asia. It is the reason wetlands and tundras support the wildlife it has. The estimated threshold for this is 4.0°C, the estimated time scale is 50 years, and the maximum global impact is increasing temperatures by up to 0.4°C.

Regional Impact Tipping Points

There are several fixtures on planet Earth that are regionally specific but are monumental enough to have a global impact. 

10. Low-Latitude Coral Reef Dieoff

Coral reef bleaching is one of the most well-known tipping points. However, some parts are recovering despite progression toward dieoff occurring. The estimated threshold for this is 1.5°C, the estimated time scale is 10 years, and the maximum global impact on temperatures is unknown.

11. Abrupt Thawing of Boreal Permafrost

The estimated threshold for this is 1.5°C, the estimated time scale is 200 years, and the maximum global impact on temperatures is 0.04 per °C by 2100.

12. Abrupt Loss of Barents Sea Ice

The estimated threshold for this is 1.6°C, the estimated time scale is 25 years, and the maximum global impact on temperatures is unknown.

13. Mountain Glacier Loss

This will cause sea level rise and avalanches, harming high-altitude communities and wildlife. The estimated threshold for this is 2.0°C, the estimated time scale is 200 years, and the maximum global impact on temperatures is 0.08°C.

14. Sahel and West African Monsoon Greening

This is when several sections of Africa will receive unprecedented precipitation. The estimated threshold for this is 2.8°C, the estimated time scale is 50 years, and the maximum global impact on temperatures is unknown.

15. South Boreal Forest Dieoff

Increased temperatures are making it hard for the south forest to thrive. The estimated threshold for this is 4.0°C, the estimated time scale is 100 years, and the maximum global impact is decreasing temperatures by -0.18°C.

16. North Boreal Forest Expansion

A growing forest sounds like a good thing, but it would reduce the area’s albedo, or how much light the surface reflects. This will cause temperatures to be irregular for the area’s biodiversity. The estimated threshold for this is 4.0°C, the estimated time scale is 100 years, and the maximum global impact is increasing temperatures by 0.14°C.

Are We on Track?

Now that you know the climate change tipping points, the biggest question to ask is how we’re doing as a species to prevent these horrific things from happening. Unfortunately, we are on track to hit some of the tipping points in the next decade or so.

However, this doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There are still plenty of ways to assume individual responsibility, hold companies accountable, and advocate for governmental action. The power of human collaboration and innovation should not be underestimated.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.