Tipping Points In The Global Climate System

The destabilization and potential loss of key components that stabilize the Earth’s climate system, such as the Arctic summer ice, Greenland ice sheet, boreal permafrost, West Antarctic ice sheet, Amazon rainforest, and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), have profound implications for global climate and ecosystems.

We Are Pushing The Limits

Recent reports from Copernicus (the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme) and the IPCC with contributions from various international research institutes and science groups around the world, indicate that we are, or rather may already have, exceeded some of the planetary boundaries and upper limits of our living planet’s complex biological, climatological, and thermodynamical systems as we are currently heading into incharted territority, a phrase indicating a state of lacking acuracy and predictability in curent climate modeling as we may be moving past tipping points – a phrase coined by Nature. All indicators are moving into the red as we move past critical planetary boundaries.


Much has to do with planetary polution and our global society’s collective energy metabolism. Even though our global average energy use per capita has stabilised since 2011, the world’s energy consumption is still ever increasing as our global population growths over time.



360 (± 2) zettajoules (since 1955)

Data source: Observations from various ocean measurement devices Credit: NOAA/NCEI World Ocean Database

About 90% of global warming is occurring in the ocean

Ninety percent of global warming is occurring in the ocean, causing the water’s internal heat to increase since modern recordkeeping began in 1955, as shown in the upper chart. (The shaded blue region indicates the 95% margin of uncertainty.) This chart shows annual estimates for the first 2,000 meters of ocean depth.

Each data point in the chart represents a five-year average. For example, the 2021 value represents the average change in ocean heat content (since 1955) for the years 2019 up to and including 2023.

Heat stored in the ocean causes its water to expand, which is responsible for one-third to one-half of global sea level rise. Most of the added energy is stored at the surface, at a depth of zero to 700 meters. The last 10 years were the ocean’s warmest decade since at least the 1800s. The year 2023 was the ocean’s warmest recorded year.

Domino Effect

‘Disturbing the balance, pushing large amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, may lead to severe feedbacks in heat increase and less and less recovery time. When the Greenland or West-Antarctic Ice Sheet keep losing volume and become unstable they influence not only sea-level rise but may destabilize the whole global climate system”

Johan Rockström

‘The major planetary climate dynamics are neatly lined up as a row of domino stones – tip one, and they may all fall. When we lose those coherent building blocks of life, they could cause an acceleration in the planets warming we cannot predict’.

Renew climate ambitions

In Paris, back in 2015, governments attending the Conference of the Parties choose to commit themselves to keeping the average world temperature rise below 2⁰C degrees, and preferably less than 1.5⁰C. 

At the time, climate experts estimated maintaining these temperatures would allow us to keep balance in the Earth system and enable us to avoid the worst outcomes of enduring CO₂ emissions and continuous temperature rise. The imminent impacts of global warming and sea level rise on our infrastructure and coastal cities are increasingly clear:

What exactly is a Tipping Point?

A tipping point, in the context of climate science and environmental systems, refers to a critical threshold or point of no return in the Earth’s climate system. When a tipping point is crossed, it triggers significant and often irreversible changes in the environment, ecosystems, or climate patterns. These changes can occur relatively quickly and have profound impacts on natural systems and human societies.

Here are key characteristics of tipping points:

  1. Abrupt Change: Tipping points often involve abrupt shifts rather than gradual changes. Once the threshold is crossed, the system may rapidly transition to a new state, sometimes with little warning.
  2. Irreversibility: Some tipping points lead to changes that are difficult or impossible to reverse, even if the conditions that triggered them are mitigated or eliminated.
  3. Cascade Effects: Tipping points can trigger cascading effects across interconnected systems. For example, melting Arctic sea ice reduces the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), which in turn accelerates warming and further ice loss.
  4. Feedback Mechanisms: Many tipping points involve positive feedback loops, where initial changes amplify themselves. For instance, thawing permafrost releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which further accelerates warming.

Examples of potential tipping points in the climate system include the collapse of major ice sheets (like the Greenland or West Antarctic Ice Sheet), shifts in ocean circulation patterns (such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), and the loss of critical ecosystems like coral reefs or the Amazon rainforest.

Effects of Tipping Points tipping over on Earth as we know it

PBS Terra (featuring Tim Lenton, Chair in Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter) made this clear explainer video demonstrating the effects of 6 Tipping Points ‘tipping’ over.

6 Tipping Points and their effects as demonstrated by Weathered – PBS Terra.

Understanding and preventing tipping points is crucial for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. It underscores the importance of acting swiftly and decisively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect vulnerable ecosystems, and build resilience to unavoidable changes in the Earth’s climate system.

The current albedo collapse is almost 1% per decade. The planetary reflectance is now measured by NASA at 98 watts per square meter compared to 100 w/m2 in 2001. The dimming of the world since 2015 has the warming effect of 100 ppm of CO2 emissions, according to James Hansen, Professor Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program Earth Institute at Columbia University.

  • The idea of mitigation deterrence is incoherent and ideological. Reducing emissions cannot mitigate climate change in a relevant time frame, while higher albedo can. So it doesn’t make sense to say that increasing albedo could deter mitigation.
  • We have not yet seen the full warming impact of current CO2, due to the delay caused by the mixing of the oceans. This has slowed the heat for a while.
  • Reducing emissions can have virtually no effect on warming.
Various Tipping Points are interconnected with irreversible Cacade Effects.

‘When we reach two degrees of warming the Earth system may tip over from being a friend to a foe,’ 

Professor Johan Rockström, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. 

See a tipping points presentation by Professor Johan Rockström (first 3 minutes on tipping points)

Our Oceans Are Boiling

  1. Rising Ocean Temperatures: Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise at an alarming rate. Warmer oceans disrupt marine ecosystems, endangering coral reefs, fish populations, and other marine life essential for biodiversity and human food security.
  2. Ocean Acidification: Increased carbon dioxide levels from human activities are absorbed by the oceans, leading to acidification. This harms marine organisms with calcium carbonate shells, such as corals and shellfish, affecting their growth and survival.
  3. Extreme Weather Events: Warming oceans contribute to more frequent and severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones. These storms can devastate coastal communities and infrastructure, causing loss of life and economic damage.
  4. Sea Level Rise: Melting polar ice caps and glaciers, driven by warmer temperatures, contribute to rising sea levels. This threatens low-lying coastal areas and islands, displacing communities and endangering coastal ecosystems.
  5. Feedback Loops: Changes in ocean temperature and chemistry can trigger feedback loops that further accelerate climate change. For instance, thawing permafrost releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, exacerbating warming trends.
  6. Global Implications: The health of the oceans is crucial for regulating Earth’s climate and sustaining life on our planet. A disrupted ocean system affects weather patterns, global food supplies, and the livelihoods of billions of people who depend on oceans for food and income.
Timelapse of our ocean, melting Arctics and the global effects of sea level rise

Addressing the crisis requires urgent and concerted efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, protect marine ecosystems, and adapt to the impacts of climate change. International cooperation, policy reforms, technological innovation, and public awareness are essential to safeguarding the health and resilience of our oceans and the future of the human habitat fit for the human condition on our living planet.