03 Apr 2020

03 Apr 2020

Review status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESD.

Interacting tipping elements increase risk of climate domino effects under global warming

Nico Wunderling1,2,3, Jonathan F. Donges1,4, Jürgen Kurths1,5, and Ricarda Winkelmann1,2 Nico Wunderling et al.
  • 1Earth System Analysis and Complexity Science, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, Research (PIK), Member of the Leibniz Association, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
  • 2Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, 14476 Potsdam, Germany
  • 3Department of Physics, Humboldt University of Berlin, 12489 Berlin, Germany
  • 4Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, SE-10691, Sweden
  • 5Saratov State University, Saratov, RU-410012, Russia

Abstract. There exists a range of subsystems in the climate system exhibiting threshold behaviour which could be triggered under global warming within this century resulting in severe consequences for biosphere and human societies. While their individual tipping thresholds are fairly well understood, it is of yet unclear how their interactions might impact the overall stability of the Earth's climate system. This cannot be studied yet with state-of-the-art Earth system models due to computational constraints as well as missing and uncertain process representations of some tipping elements.

Here, we explicitly study the effects of known physical interactions between the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the El-Nino Southern Oscillation and the Amazon rainforest using a conceptual network approach. We analyse the risk of domino effects being triggered by each of the individual tipping elements under global warming in equilibrium experiments, propagating uncertainties in critical temperature thresholds and interaction strengths via a Monte-Carlo approach.

Overall, we find that the interactions tend to destabilise the network. Furthermore, our analysis reveals the qualitative role of each of the five tipping elements showing that the polar ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica are oftentimes the initiators of tipping cascades, while the AMOC acts as a mediator, transmitting cascades.

This implies that the ice sheets, which are already at risk of transgressing their temperature thresholds within the Paris range of 1.5 to 2 °C, are of particular importance for the stability of the climate system as a whole.

Nico Wunderling et al.

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Nico Wunderling et al.

Nico Wunderling et al.


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Short summary
In the Earth system, there exists climate tipping elements that can undergo qualitative changes in response to environmental perturbations. If triggered, this would result in severe consequences for biosphere and human societies. We quantify the risk of tipping cascades using a conceptual, but fully dynamic network approach. We uncover that the risk of tipping cascades under global warming scenarios is enormous and find that the continental ice sheets are most likely to initiate these failures.