Large, abrupt climate changes have repeatedly affected much or all of the earth, locally reaching as much as 10°C change in 10 years. Available evidence suggests that abrupt climate changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large impacts on ecosystems and societies.
This report is an attempt to describe what is known about abrupt climate changes and their impacts, based on paleoclimate proxies, historical observations, and modeling. The report does not focus on large, abrupt causes—nuclear wars or giant meteorite impacts—but rather on the surprising new findings that abrupt climate change can occur when gradual causes push the earth system across a threshold. Just as the slowly increasing pressure of a finger eventually flips a switch and turns on a light, the slow effects of drifting continents or wobbling orbits or changing atmospheric composition may “switch” the climate to a new state. And, just as a moving hand is more likely than a stationary one to encounter and flip a switch, faster earth-system changes—whether natural or human-caused—are likely to increase the probability of encountering a threshold that triggers a still faster climate shift.
We do not yet understand abrupt climate changes well enough to predict them. The models used to project future climate changes and their impacts are not especially good at simulating the size, speed, and extent of