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Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises
climate change impacts and will aid development of adaptation strategies.
Physical, ecological, and human systems are imperfectly understood, complex, nonlinear, and dynamic. Current changes in climate are producing conditions in these systems that are outside the range of recent historical experience and observation, and it is unclear how the systems will interact with and react to the coming climatic changes. Our ability to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change will be improved if we can recognize climate-related changes quickly. This will require improved monitoring of climatic, ecological, and socioeconomic systems. Many of the needed data sets overlap with those used to study gradual climate change.
To increase understanding of abrupt climate change, research should be directed toward aspects of the climate system that are believed to have participated in past abrupt changes or that are likely to exhibit abrupt and persistent changes when thresholds in the climate system are crossed. Key research areas for increasing our understanding of abrupt climate change include:
oceanic circulation, especially related to deepwater formation;
sea-ice transport and processes, particularly where they interact with deepwater formation;
land-ice behavior, including conditions beneath ice sheets;
the hydrological cycle, including storage, runoff, and permafrost changes; and
modes of atmospheric behavior and how they change over time.
In the ecological and human sphere, data collection should target sectors where the impacts of abrupt climate change are likely to be largest or where knowledge of ongoing changes will be especially useful in understanding impacts and developing response alternatives. Data collection should include a comprehensive land-use census that monitors fragmentation of ecosystems, tracking of wildlife diseases, and conditions related to forest fires, as well as improved seasonal and long-term climate forecasts, and sustained study of oceanic regimes of intense biological activity, particularly near the coasts. In the social arena, priority should be given to development of environmental and nonmarket accounts, and analyses of possible threshold crossings.