Why Tipping Points are so scary

An event like the melting of the arctic is called a tipping point. The death of rainforests is another tipping point. Rainforests seem to tip at about 40% .  Any rain forest which is 40% dead always seems to finish dying entirely and then the whole thing is gone.   After 40% death, the death of the entire forest is unstoppable. And irreversible. And un-recoverable. This is one reason why tipping points are so scary.

The Arctic and the Antarctic are the same way. After a certain amount of the ice as melted, there is no stopping the melting. Once a critical point is reached, all of the ice and glaciers will melt and no one can stop it or reverse it.

This irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary. After they happen the world will never be same again. No one will ever be able to fix it again.

Crossing tipping points is always a serious disaster.

Here is an easy example of a tipping point. It’s like tipping a canoe over in midstream. One minute you are merrily canoeing down stream. You are happy, warm and in control and the world is beautiful. But once you flip, the canoe is upside down with no way to right it and you are in cold water that is rapidly pushing you into hypothermia. If it is a very cold and swift river you cannot easily get to shore. In the worst situation, nothing you do helps. 

Pistauquit River in Northern Maine.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
Pistauquit River in Northern Maine

This once happened to me. I was canoeing a very swift section of the Snake River in Wyoming with a couple of friends. We were all very brash, over-confident young men who had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. And we had little idea of how to canoe a river this difficult. We dumped in the middle of the river and barely managed to get to shore after fighting our way through the thick willows that lined the river.

By this time it had gotten very cold and very dark. We had gotten a late start because we all worked during the day. And now we were in real trouble in the blink of an eye.

After wading and swimming through an additional hundred yards of chest deep beaver ponds we finally made it a rancher’s house in the middle of nowhere more dead than alive. By this time we were all deep into hypothermia. If that rancher’s house with its roaring wood fire had not been there we would have been dead very shortly. Very luckily we cheated that tipping point, but just barely. 

In the real ecological world tipping is much less forgiving. Actually it is not forgiving at all. That is the definition of tipping points.

The thing about tipping points, is that once you tip over it’s impossible to get upright again. After tipping there is no recovery possible.  That is the definition of tipping points.  My canoeing metaphor isn’t exactly right as some people can actually roll kayaks and even canoes in midstream. But you get the point. Tipping points in the real ecological world are always irreversible by definition. 

Fred Pearce who is a one of the best science writers in the world. He often writes about tipping points. He wrote a great book in 2008 called “With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.” That book was instrumental in my early education in climate change. And that book is still a great read. All the basics about global warming were well know in 2008 when he wrote this book.

Recently Pearce has written a couple of articles in Yale Environmental 360 where he updates the idea of tipping points. One of these articles is “As Climate Change Worsens, A Cascade of Tipping Points Looms.” The second article is about a new tipping point called cloud cover. 

If the Arctic keeps melting as it has,  all of the Polar Bears will soon be extinct.  They depend on ice to catch seals.  The melting of the arctic could slow the Gulf Stream which would greatly damage places like this.
If the Arctic keeps melting as it has, all of the Polar Bears will soon be extinct. They depend on ice to catch seals.

Pearce says in the first article that the tipping, melting Arctic could end up slowing and even stopping the Gulf Stream and even the whole ocean circulatory system which is called AMOC. And, he says, the melting of the arctic is very likely to trigger a whole cascade of new tipping points. Pearce quotes an environment scientist by name of Steffen in this article. Steffen says that,

The decline of the ocean circulation threatens to trigger other tipping points elsewhere. A slowdown of the AMOC reduces rainfall over the Amazon basin, increasing the probability of crossing a tipping point there,” says Steffen. It could also mess with monsoon systems in Asia and West Africa, triggering drought in the Sahel. And by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, it would further destabilize ice in Antarctica, unleashing an acceleration in global sea level rise.

Disabling  the AMOC would be a tremendous disaster. This ocean circulatory system carries huge amounts of heat from one part of the earth to another. It seems to be the key part of the basic temperature regulation system of the earth. Break the AMOC and you break the earth.  Pearce says that we seem to be right at the edge of that today.

The shutting down of the gulf  stream is not just a tipping point, it’s a cascade. Cascades are what you get when one tipping point leads to another and then another and another. This is the main reason that shutting down the gulf stream is so dangerous.

Zodiac cruising past amazing icebergs in Greenland.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
Zodiac cruising past amazing icebergs in Greenland.

If this happens, the warming of the world could be truly unstoppable. It could now be just one tipping point after another after another after another with no return to normal possible.

This is the real world emergency that we are getting closer and closer to all the time.  In fact there is a lot of recent research that shows that this is happening already. And once all of this progresses to a definitive tipping point, the world and us humans along with it are pretty much toast.

Today we suddenly are making a lot of progress is switching from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. Things are beginning to happen. Joe Biden is making some real progress. But here is the thing. Do we have enough time to stop global warming before we cross some kind of irreversible tipping point?

For more information about tipping points, see Fred Pearce’s 360 Yale article about New Tipping Points.  This article appears in the summer 2020 issue of Yale 360. There are links below to several articles by Pearce and also to his book on tipping points.

Gallatin River in Montana
Gallatin River in Montana

More information on tipping points

Fred Pearce’s book With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.

“As Climate Change Worsens, A Cascade of Tipping Points Looms: by Fred Pearce

Why Clouds are the Key to New Troubling Projections on Warming by Fred Pearce

The Arctic is Melting

My review of Pearce’s book With Speed and Violence

A few more pictures of our fragile and beautiful natural world. Hopefully we won’t lose it all.

San Juan Range in CO.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
San Juan Range in CO
The Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande River in NM.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
The Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande River in NM
The road over Ohio Pass in Colorado.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
The road over Ohio Pass in Colorado. Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
Near Silver Jack lake in Colorado.  Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
Near Silver Jack lake in Colorado
Grand Canon snag and sunset
Grand Canon snag and sunset. Their irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary.
Birch and Maple in Northern Maine
Birch and Maple in Northern Maine

Post summary: An event like the melting of the arctic is called a tipping point. The death of rainforests is another tipping point. Rainforests seem to tip at about 40%. Any rain forest which is 40% dead always seems to finish dying entirely and then the whole thing is gone.   After 40% death, the death of the entire forest is unstoppable. And irreversible. And un-recoverable. This is one reason why tipping points are so scary.

The Arctic and the Antarctic are the same way. After a certain amount of the ice as melted, there is no stopping the melting. Once a critical point is reached, all of the ice and glaciers will melt and no one can stop it or reverse it.

This irreversibility is why tipping points are so scary. After they happen the world will never be same again. No one will ever be able to fix it again.

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