3rd GEOSS Science and Technology Stakeholder Workshop
March 23-25, 2015, Norfolk, VA, USA

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Anticipating tipping points

Tim Lenton, Earth System Science, University of Exeter, Exeter, U.K.

A ‘tipping point’ occurs when a small change in forcing triggers a strongly non-linear response in the internal dynamics of a system, qualitatively changing its future state. Large-scale ‘tipping elements’ have been identified in the Earth’s climate system that may pass a tipping point under human-induced global change this century (Lenton et al. (2008) PNAS 105: 1786-1793). Such abrupt, non-linear changes are likely to have large impacts, but our capacity to forecast them has historically been poor. Recently, much excitement has been generated by the possibility that approaching tipping points carry generic early warning signals (Scheffer et al. (2009) Nature 461: 53-59; Lenton (2011) Nature Climate Change 1: 201-209). I will introduce the theory and prospects for gaining early warning of approaching climate tipping points. Promising methods are based on detecting ‘critical slowing down’ in the rate a system recovers from small perturbations, and on characteristic changes in the statistical distribution of its behaviour (e.g. increasing variability). Early warning signals have been found in paleo-climate data approaching past abrupt transitions, in models being gradually forced past tipping points, and in analysis of recent Arctic climate data. I will discuss the outstanding challenge of how to design a tipping point early warning system and how to identify the ‘essential variables’ to monitor in specific target systems.