National Academies Press: OpenBook
« Previous: 3 Areas of Concern for Humans from Abrupt Changes
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

CHAPTER 4


The Way Forward

The phrase “Here be dragons” appears on one of the first known globes produced in Europe following Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean (Figure 4.1). That globe shows some of the vast uncertainties that Columbus’s exploration highlighted for Europe—indeed, North America is portrayed as just a few islands (e.g., De Costa, 1879). The phrase may have been referring to Komodo dragons, but it could easily have evoked the dragons that we now associate with fairy tales in the imagination of Columbus’s contemporaries. The initial discovery of the “New World” revealed unsuspected possibilities (“unknown unknowns”), effectively increasing uncertainty. Subsequent exploration has long since filled in those uncertainties, and if real dragons had lived between those islands, they would have been found.

By analogy, many investigations into the climate and Earth system have revealed possible dangers. Some of those have been confirmed or even amplified, such as the impacts of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer that were understood in the 1970s before the Antarctic Ozone Hole was discovered the following decade (see Box 1.1). Other possible dangers, such as the sudden release of methane from ocean sediments, have been greatly reduced by subsequent research that showed a clear lack of dragons.

In looking back at the previous studies of abrupt climate change in the Introduction to this report, the committee notes that even when dragons, i.e., possible threats, are identified and clearly pointed out, they may then be ignored and their presence not acted upon. This is not an unusual situation, and ignoring early warnings is a welldocumented phenomenon in environmental research (e.g., EEA, 2001). In this chapter we briefly examine some of the major lessons learned in Chapters 2 and 3 and then propose one possible way forward, namely an Abrupt Change Early Warning System (ACEWS).

WHAT HAS BEEN LEARNED?

Paleoclimatologists have long known that the slower changes of the ice age were punctuated by relatively large events with approximately millennial spacing and sharp onsets and terminations. Some of these were given names, such as the Younger Dryas. A range of studies showed that these events represented changes in wintertime sea

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

image

FIGURE 4.1 The Hunt-Lenox Globe. Wording near China says “hic sunt dracones,” which translates to “here be dragons.” This is a metaphor for unknown threats. Often, as humans have explored more of the world, threats have become less—in this case, the “dragons” may have referred to Komodo dragons, rather than dragons of fairy tales.


ice coverage in the North Atlantic, that they had a near-global footprint but regionally distinct impacts, and that even slow changes in freshwater flux to the North Atlantic could cross a threshold and trigger a sudden event (e.g., Alley, 2007). The very large magnitude of the changes in some regions, the wholesale and rapid reorganization of ecosystems, and the very rapid rates of change that affected certain places (10°C over 10 years in Greenland), together with the realization that greenhouse warming would cause significant changes in freshwater fluxes to the North Atlantic, caused concerns that extended beyond the scientific community into popular culture (e.g., the 2004 science-fiction/disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow).

As discussed in Chapter 2, subsequent research has shown that an abrupt disruption of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is much less likely under modern boundary conditions than during the ice age, and that the regional cooling impact of the shutdown in heat transport to the high northern latitudes would

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

probably be smaller than the warming from rising greenhouse gas concentrations. In sum, while the North Atlantic remains a probable site of strong climate variability and even slow changes in the circulation of this basin could result in significant local and regional impacts, recent research has shown that the earlier worries of a total AMOC collapse are unwarranted (IPCC, 2007c; USCCSP, 2008; and Chapter 2). Thus in this case, improved knowledge has allayed some fears of the worst types of outcomes occurring this century from this possible abrupt climate change (Box 4.1).

In a similar manner, rapid or catastrophic methane release from sea-floor or permafrost reservoirs has also been shown to be much less worrisome than first considered possible (see section in Chapter 2 on High-Latitude Methane and Carbon Cycles). The discovery of vast methane deposits, clearly vulnerable to warming, motivated discussion of a potential primary role for methane in Earth’s climate. Fast changes in atmospheric methane concentration in ice cores from glacial time correlated with abrupt climate changes (e.g., Chappellaz et al., 1993). However, subsequent research has revealed that the variations in methane through the glacial cycles (1) originated in large part from low-latitude wetlands, and were not dominated by high-latitude sources that could be potentially much larger, and (2) produced a relatively small radiative forcing relative to the temperature changes, serving as a small feedback to climate changes rather than a primary driver.1 Looking to the future, the available source reservoirs for atmospheric methane release—from both methane hydrates and permafrost—are expected to respond to climate on a time scale slow enough that the climate impact from the methane will probably be smaller than that from rising CO2 concentrations. Nonetheless, there is still much to explore. For example a cause for concern is that wildfires have been spreading into some permafrost regions as local climatic conditions promote increasingly dry conditions (Yoshikawa et al., 2002). Little is known about the potential of such burning to thaw and release stored carbon faster than expected. This possible mechanism of rapid, unexpected carbon release merits research to evaluate its efficacy and climatic impacts.

But despite the comfort one might take from knowing that these examples are not the dragons they were once thought to be, “dragons” in the climate system still may exist.

____________________

1 Methane was also proposed as the origin of the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum event, 55 million years ago, in which carbon isotopic compositions of CaCO3 shells in deep sea sediments reflect the release of some isotopically light carbon source (like methane or organic carbon), and various temperature proxies indicate warming of the deep ocean and hence the Earth’s surface. But the longevity of the warm period has shown that CO2 was the dominant active greenhouse gas, even if methane was one of the important sources of this CO2 , and the carbon isotope spike shows that if the primary release reservoir were methane, the amount of CO2 that would be produced by this spike would be insufficient to explain the extent of warming, unless the climate sensitivity of Earth was much higher than it is today (Pagani et al., 2006).

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

BOX 4.1 ASYMMETRICAL UNCERTAINTIES

The current understanding of many aspects of the climate system and its influence on ecosystems and economies projects a most-likely response to changing CO2 but a skewed distribution of uncertainties, such that the outcome may be a little “better” (smaller changes, lower costs), a little “worse” (larger changes, higher costs), or a lot worse than the most-likely case, but with little chance of being a lot better (see Figure). Skewed distributions, and those with “fat tails” that allow finite chances of very large changes, are known or have been suggested in many contexts (e.g., Mandelbrot, 1963; Weitzman, 2011). Vigorous research continues on the effects of such issues on optimal policy paths (e.g., Keller et al., 2004; Keller et al., 2008; McInerney and Keller, 2008; Weitzman, 2009; Tol, 2003). As described above, research can in some cases lead to an improved understanding of risks where the highest impact outcomes are discovered to be less likely than originally feared, i.e., in some cases research can remove these “fat tails” (see Figure).

The value of reducing the deep uncertainty associated with fat tails or abrupt climate changes is clear, motivating research to stimulate learning. A large possibility of an AMOC “shutdown”, for example, would have notably increased the optimal response to reducing climate change, so the reduction of the estimated chance of such an event provided by recent research has large economic consequences (Keller et al., 2004).

Many of the potential abrupt climate changes listed in Table 4.1 are listed as having a “moderate” or “low” probability/likelihood of occurring within this century. Recent research on expert elicitations (Kriegler et al., 2009) related to the probability of abrupt climate changes is in general agreement with the assessments provided in Table 4.1. For the five tipping point examples that they examined, they found “significant lower probability bounds for triggering major changes in the climate system.”

The collected understanding of these threats is summarized in Table 4.1. For example, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is a known unknown, with at least some potential to shed ice at a rate that would in turn raise sea level at a pace that is several times faster than is happening today. If WAIS were to rapidly disintegrate, it would challenge adaptation plans, impact investments into coastal infrastructure, and make rising sea level a much larger problem than it already is now. Other unknowns include the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice and the potential impacts on Northern Hemisphere weather and climate that could potentially come from that shift in the global balance of energy, the widespread extinction of species in marine and terrestrial systems, and the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events and heat waves. The committee reviews the various abrupt changes described in Chapter 2 in Table 4.1.

Looking beyond the physical climate system, many of the research frontiers highlighted in this report focus on the potential for gradual physical changes to trigger

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

image

FIGURE The graph on the left represents the skewed distribution of uncertainties with a “fat tail.” The mean likelihood of occurrence at the level of severity anticipated is represented by a dotted line. The area to the left of the mean represents the likelihood for impacts less severe (the “a little better” case), while the area to the right shows the greater likelihood for extreme impacts (spanning “a little worse” to “a lot worse” cases). The graph on the right compares the normal distribution (black line) to the “fat tail” distribution (blue line). For some changes, more research has shown that the distribution of possible outcomes includes less likelihood of the most severe outcomes.


abrupt ecological, economic, or social changes (see Chapter 3). In these cases, reaching a certain threshold of change in various climatic parameters can trigger abrupt, irreversible changes in the affected ecological, economic, or social system, even if the trajectory of climate change itself is gradual. There is still much to learn about the potential for and possible prediction of these kinds of abrupt changes, but a sound body of theory and empirical data (Barnosky et al., 2012; Carpenter et al., 2011; Hastings and Wysham, 2010; Mumby et al., 2007; Scheffer, 2010; Scheffer et al., 2001, 2009, 2012b) confirm that there are real “dragons” out there to be discovered.

In the ecological arena, some of these metaphorical dragons are already becoming evident—for instance, gradual ocean acidification leading to the shutdown of developmental pathways in ecologically important marine species, or gradual warming of ocean waters to exceed temperature thresholds that result in death of coral reefs (see sections on Changes in Ocean Chemistry and Extinctions in Chapter 2). Both kinds

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

of “threshold effects” have been confirmed experimentally (ocean acidification) or from observational data accumulated over the past few decades (coral bleaching and death).

A major area of uncertainty, however, is the potential for threshold-induced impacts on one species to cascade to impact others, and the pathways by which such cascades could lead to wholesale ecosystem collapse (see section on Ecosystem Collapse and Rapid State Changes in Chapter 3). For example, while it is clear that species are changing their geographic distributions and seasonal cycles individualistically in response to climate change, resulting in pulling apart of species that have co-existed in the same place at the same time of the year, the magnitude and importance of longer-term ecological changes that will result are still unclear. Answering such species-interaction and ecological-network questions holds the key to assessing the likelihood of figuring out the ‘fat-tail’ probabilities of ecosystem collapse induced by climate change, which in turn would impact economic and social systems (for instance, through loss of fisheries, forests, or agricultural productivity).

Anticipating the potential for climatically-induced abrupt change in social systems is even more difficult, given that social systems are actually extremely complex systems, the dynamics of which are governed by a network of interactions between people, technology, the environment, and climate. The sheer complexity of such systems makes it difficult to predict how changes in any single part of the network will affect the overall system, but theory indicates that changes in highly-connected nodes of the system have the most potential to propagate and cause abrupt downstream changes. Climate connects to social stability through a wide variety of nodes, including availability of food and water, transportation (for instance, opening Arctic seaways), economics (insurance costs related to extreme weather events or rising sea level, agricultural markets, energy production), ecosystem services (pollination, fisheries), and human health (spread of disease vectors, increasing frequency of abnormally hot days that cause physiological stress). Reaching a climatic threshold that causes rapid change in any one of these arenas therefore has high potential to trigger rapid changes throughout the system. For example, at the time Arctic shipping routes become routinely passable, world trade routes and the related economic and political realities could change dramatically within a single decade.

Much remains unknown about how climate maps onto the complex networks that define social systems at local, regional, and global scales. Using network modeling techniques to identify the nodes and connections that construct social systems at a variety of spatial scales, and how projected climate changes would be expected to propagate through the system, may well lead to better predictive ability. A more empirical ap-

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

proach, already feasible with existing modeling techniques, is to identify communities that are geographically situated where small shifts in global climatic patterns—such as in position of the jet stream—would have large impacts at the local scale, such as an “on-off” switch for local drought. Identifying those geographic areas and assessing how the local impacts might propagate spatially through the regional and global social network may provide a viable means of anticipating regional vulnerabilities, and which of those vulnerable regions have high potential of influencing global dynamics. “Stress tests,” or scenario based modeling exercises have been recommended as a way to reveal vulnerabilities and likely effects of disruptive climate events on particular countries, populations, or systems; stress tests provide “a framework for integrating climate and social variables more systematically and consistently within national security analysis” (NRC, 2012b).

ANTICIPATING SURPRISES

The recognition of the importance of tipping-point behavior in physical, biological, and social systems has prompted a growing body of research to provide as much early warning as possible of incipient or ongoing abrupt changes (Box 4.2). Theory and experiment agree that some systems approaching tipping points exhibit signs of the impending change. This behavior may include a flickering behavior, in which a system jumps back and forth between two states, or a shift to slower recovery from small perturbations (e.g., Taylor et al., 1993; Drake and Griffen, 2010; Carpenter et al., 2011; Veraart et al., 2012; Wang et al., 2012a), presaging future failure to recover. However, as emphasized by Boettinger and Hastings (2013), there probably is not a generic signal of an impending shift, with different signals in different systems, and there is very real possibility that no warning signal will be evident. Considering this, plus the various challenges to interpreting signals that do occur, the goal of successfully predicting tipping points, and providing policy-relevant choices on how to avoid them or deal with the consequences, is likely to be realized in some cases but is unlikely to be universally possible.

Nonetheless, identifying potential vulnerabilities is valuable. In some cases science may be able to provide accurate information that a tipping point is imminent, creating time for adaptation or even possibly mitigation. Science can also identify when tipping is occurring, or has recently occurred. Such knowledge could greatly reduce societal damages. And, in light of the potentially very large costs of some possible abrupt changes, additional research to improve this knowledge can have large economic benefits (e.g., Keller et al., 2007; McInerney et al., 2012).

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

BOX 4.2 EARLY WARNING SIGNALS OF ABRUPT TRANSITIONS

Examining the spectral properties of time series data can, in theory, predict the onset of some abrupt changes. There is a burgeoning literature examining early warning signals in systems as they approach tipping points (e.g., Boettiger and Hastings, 2012a, b; Dakos et al., 2008; Ditlevsen and Johnsen, 2010; Lenton et al., 2008; Scheffer et al., 2009; Scheffer et al., 2012a). Several examples of early warning signs are described below:

  1. In some systems, the return time from a small perturbation increases as the system approaches a critical threshold. This “critical slowing down” leads to an increase in autocorrelation in the pattern of variability, which can serve as an indicator of impending abrupt change (Dakos et al., 2008; Scheffer et al., 2009).
  2. There may also be “flickering” as stochastic forcings move the system back and forth across a threshold to sample two alternative regimes; some data suggest that past climatic shifts may have been preceded by such flickering behavior (Scheffer et al., 2009).
  3. It is also possible for the macrostructure of systems to indicate proximity to a transition point (e.g., spatial patterns of vegetation in a landscape as it transitions from patchy to barren; Scheffer et al., 2009). Research in this field is extending to examine highly connected networks, where connectivity and heterogeneity patterns may be used to anticipate state changes (Scheffer et al., 2012a).

Significant challenges exist in implementing early warnings to anticipate tipping points. Accurate forewarnings that avoid significant false alarms involve tradeoffs between specificity and sensitivity (Boettiger and Hastings, 2012a, b). Additionally, successful detection of an impending change does not imply that an effective intervention is possible. Finally, there is some evidence that previous abrupt changes in Earth’s history have been noise-induced transitions (see Box 1.4); such events will have very limited predictability (Ditlevsen and Johnsen, 2010). In general, because many systems have the property of being sensitive to initial conditions (i.e., the “butterfly effect”), forecasting future behavior is only feasible on short timescales for those systems, and timely early warning signs for abrupt changes may not be possible.

An Abrupt-Change Early-Warning System

In light of the potential great importance and value of accurate anticipation of the occurrence and impacts of abrupt changes, the committee recommends development of an abrupt change early warning system (ACEWS). An ACEWS would be part of an overall risk management strategy, providing required information for hazard identification and risk assessment (Figure 4.2). This information would then inform an overall risk strategy, which uses the risk assessment to prioritize hazard mitigation options and their implementation (Basher, 2006). A central part of an effective risk management framework is continued evaluation of the efficacy of the risk management strat-

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

image

FIGURE 4.2 Continuous and reinforcing process of disaster risk management as a foundation for building resilience. Central to the risk management process is the collective evaluation by the partners regarding goals, values, and objectives for the risk management strategy and for community resilience. The entire process, divided for convenience of discussion into six steps, encompasses the ability to identify and assess the local hazards and risks (steps 1 and 2), to make decisions as to which strategies or plans are most effective to address those hazards and risks and implement them (steps 3 and 4), and to review and evaluate the risk management plan and relevant risk policies (steps 5 and 6). An Abrupt Change Early Warning System (ACEWS) would be part of such an overall risk management strategy, providing required information for hazard identification and risk assessment (adapted from NRC, 2012c).


Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

egy and adjustment based on new information about the hazard and vulnerabilities (NRC, 2012c). Given the number of critical Earth system components that might cross tipping points and the potentially data intensive monitoring and modeling needs, some strategic decisions will have to be made with regard to which hazards to monitor and for which to attempt to develop warning systems. For example, if the lead time necessary to prepare the appropriate social response is very long, the detection of the tipping point might not occur early enough to avoid major impact on the socioeconomic system. Some of these decisions are based on what risks are socially acceptable compared to the cost of the hazard mitigation effort and involve value judgment by the affected people or their political representatives (Plattner, 2005).

In general, an ACEWS system would (1) identify and quantify social and natural vulnerabilities and ensure long-term, stable observations of key environmental and economic parameters through enhanced and targeted monitoring, (2) integrate new knowledge into numerical models for enhanced understanding and predictive capability, and (3) synthesize new learning and advance the understanding of the Earth system, taking advantage of collaborations and new analysis tools. These aspects are discussed below, followed by a discussion of the some special considerations for designing and implementing an ACEWS.

The development of an ACEWS will need to be an ongoing process, one that goes beyond the scope of this report to include multiple stakeholders. As such, there are numerous nuances and issues not addressed here. Vulnerabilities will need to be prioritized, and how the needs and desires of various stakeholder groups are considered can change relative priorities. Some economic costs are clear (threats to an airport from sea level rise, for example) and some are less clear (potential loss of ecosystem services, for example), making triage difficult. It is noted that communication is a crucial component of any early warning system to ensure the timely delivery of information on impending events, and prepare potential risk scenarios and preparedness strategies. Special considerations need to be given to the importance of accuracy, lead time, warning message content, warning transmission, and the appropriate social response to minimize negative consequences from the hazard (Kasperson et al., 1988; Mileti, 1999). For example, the fact that Superstorm Sandy was not labeled a hurricane by the National Hurricane Center as it came on shore (the storm lost its tropical characteristics before landfall) may have confused those in harm’s way and led unnecessarily to a lessened sense of urgency and danger.2 In addition, an overall risk management system requires a preparedness and adaptations sub-system that feeds back on

____________________

2 For example, http://www.wsfa.com/story/21807734/whats-in-a-name-sandy-hurricane-or-superstorm.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

BOX 4.3 LESSONS LEARNED FROM EARLY WARNINGS IN PAST ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Lessons from the European Environment Agency 2001 report on “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000.”

  1. Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, as well as uncertainty and risk, in technology appraisal and public policymaking.
  2. Provide adequate long-term environmental and health monitoring and research into early warnings.
  3. Identify and work to reduce “blind spots” and gaps in scientific knowledge.
  4. Identify and reduce interdisciplinary obstacles to learning.
  5. Ensure that real world conditions are adequately accounted for in regulatory appraisal.
  6. Systematically scrutinize the claimed justifications and benefits alongside the potential risks.
  7. Evaluate a range of alternative options for meeting needs alongside the option under appraisal, and promote more robust, diverse and adaptable technologies so as to minimize the costs of surprises and maximize the benefits of innovation.
  8. Ensure use of “lay” and local knowledge, as well as relevant specialist expertise in the appraisal.
  9. Take full account of the assumptions and values of different social groups.
  10. Maintain the regulatory independence of interested parties while retaining an inclusive approach to information and opinion gathering.
  11. Identify and reduce institutional obstacles to learning and action.
  12. Avoid “paralysis by analysis” by acting to reduce potential harm when there are reasonable grounds for concern.

SOURCE: EEA, 2013.

loss and damage by informing actions needed to reduce impacts from an impending event.

An excellent summary of lessons learned from early warnings in past environmental issues can be found in a 2001 report by the European Environment Agency, and are shown in Box 4.3. In this section, the Committee provides further thoughts on selected aspects of an ACEWS: the monitoring, modeling, and synthesis aspects, as well as some special considerations for designing and implementing an ACEWS.

Monitoring

An ACEWS will require sustaining and integrating existing observing capabilities, as well as adding new capabilities targeted at improving understanding or early warn-

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

ings relevant to specific abrupt change threats. Table 4.1 provides initial thoughts on the monitoring needs for each of the abrupt changes considered in this report. In general, observations involved in an ACEWS will include high resolution paleo-climate records that can adequately resolve and sample extreme events, field experiments that help improve our understanding of the thresholds and tipping points of various elements of Earth’s climate system, and carefully calibrated long-term, global groundbased, airborne, and satellite observing systems. Because the most vulnerable regions tend to be resource limited or inaccessible for reliable ground-based observations, satellite observations are critical.

For the purpose of anticipating climate-related surprises through an ACEWS, thoughtful consideration is needed of what must be observed, on what timescales, and with what accuracy. The detailed discussions in this report (as summarized in Table 4.1) provide initial information on these needs. These are based on previous research on what aspects of the system may undergo abrupt change and what mechanisms lead to or contribute to that change. To further refine and inform monitoring needs will require additional research on relevant processes. This is particularly true when looking at the integrated system as a whole and the interconnections across the physical, biogeochemical, and societal spheres. The vision of an ACEWS is to build up from monitoring systems that look at individual processes to eventually develop an integrated and coordinated monitoring system. Such coordination is needed to facilitate the understanding of the interconnectedness of the various individual processes and avoid the compartmentalized thinking that can lead to duplication of effort as well as missing key processes that occur at the interfaces between disciplines.

As a general approach for examining what monitoring needs are required for a specific potential abrupt change, one3 could consider the decision tree in Box 4.4.

Modeling

Another key part of an ACEWS is modeling. Numerical models, from reducedcomplexity dynamical systems (Eisenman and Wettlaufer, 2009) to complex global coupled Earth system models (Holland et al., 2006), have provided unique insights into the mechanisms and likelihood for abrupt climate change (Hodell et al., 1995; Alley and Joughin, 2012). A successful and adaptive ACEWS must consistently iterate between data collection, model testing and improvement, and model predictions that suggest better data collection. A successful example of this model-monitoring nexus

____________________

3 Who might be making these decisions is discussed in the implementation section below.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

is the RAPID array, in which the monitoring strategy was initially tested in numerical models, which in turn informed improved modeling strategies.4

As discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, many of the processes involved in abrupt impacts occur at relatively small spatial scales that are not well resolved in current models. Strategies to address this shortcoming need to be proposed, vetted, and employed by climate modelers and stakeholders. Related to this, the implications of model biases and simplifications for the simulation of abrupt change are in general not well established, although there are some examples in which a thorough analysis on this has been performed (e.g., Eisenman, 2012). Further studies on the role of model biases and simplifications on feedbacks of interest are necessary to inform model developments and relevant applications. In addition, large ensemble simulations are important for adequately characterizing the probability of extreme events in the past, present, and future, as well as to support developments of scenarios for societal stress tests and plans for observing systems.

To date, modeling studies have had less focus on how gradual changes in climate could induce abrupt changes in other aspects of the system. This is in large part because many of these models have not incorporated relevant processes in their formulation. Full Earth system models (beyond just atmosphere and ocean models) have only recently been developed, and work is underway to improve the Earth systemrelated components of these models, such as active carbon cycles, atmospheric chemistry, and ice sheets. Inclusion of these model components will enable studies on many of the important feedbacks in the Earth system, particularly those positive feedbacks that amplify change and can send systems past tipping points that in part characterize abrupt change.

Synthesis

Monitoring and modeling needs are critical aspects of establishing an effective ACEWS. However, they cannot exist alone. A successful ACEWS must avoid the trap of data collection without continuing and evolving data analysis and model integration. A necessary third part of the proposed ACEWS is synthesizing knowledge. The ACEWS will require:

  • Dedicated people who will apply their expertise in collaborative activities to assess the potential for abrupt change in a broader systems perspective;

____________________

4 RAPID integrates multiple sensors with international support, and RAPID integrates science in the monitoring, to extract maximum value from the effort, and to avoid loss of key insights in unexamined data.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

BOX 4.4 A DECISION TREE FOR EXAMINING MONITORING NEEDS

As a first step, identify the known and suspected thresholds. Some triage needs to be employed initially to avoid the temptation to monitor everything, and to ensure that the most obvious threats are prioritized. Prior reports and this one provide guidance, although additional effort may be needed in social and economic areas.

As a second step, ask whether there is there an existing monitoring system already in place that could be used as is, or modified to meet the needs of an ACEWS (see Figure). In many cases, science already monitors key functions of the climate and other Earth cycles, and these systems should be exploited in an ACEWS. They may need more frequent data updates, or data handling may need to be modified to better use the data.

If the answer to the above question is yes, then an important action is to protect that network to ensure that it continues to operate. A security camera that does not work, or does not watch all entrances and exits, is not very useful. Current resources to provide high-quality and continuous monitoring are at risk, and there are notable examples including critical time series that have been compromised due to reductions of in-situ and remotely sensed observational networks (e.g., the NOAA Cooperative Air Sampling Network). To improve our understanding of the evolving Earth system, monitoring resources must be protected and in some cases expanded. Another example of this category of monitoring system is the GRACE satellite mission. Originally launched in 2002, GRACE (actually two satellites) measures gravity, which in continental areas varies largely as a function of overall water content, and thus highlights areas with changing

image

FIGURE Simplified ACEWS decision tree for monitoring.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

groundwater storage or withdrawal as well as changes in glaciers and ice sheets. In its 10-year lifetime, GRACE has revealed unsustainable rates of groundwater withdrawal in the southeastern United States and in parts of India, for example, and obtaining such data from other sources would be quite difficult in the United States and much more so in India. A successful ACEWS that monitors for food security should include such monitoring, as groundwater withdrawal is the common approach to combatting the impact of drought on crop yields. A failure of groundwater to backstop rain would be a tipping point in the production of food, and a central part of a system to forecast famine.a

If the answer to the above question is no (there is no existing monitoring system in place), then the next steps are to determine what is needed to implement a monitoring system, and to do so if it is feasible. A national inventory of the types and values of coastal resources vulnerable to some set level of sea level rise and storm surge is an example of such a monitoring system, one that does not currently exist but could be created and updated using information that is currently collected, but not collated into a central database.b Another example is a system to monitor the interaction between the ocean and the outlet glaciers of land ice. It is clear that ocean currents and temperatures play a key role in melting ice (Joughin et al., 2012a), and will be important in monitoring for catastrophic instability in the marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet as well as marine portions of the Greenland and East Antarctic ice sheets (Chapter 2, section on Ice Sheets and Sea Level), which in turn present the greatest risk of an unexpected and rapid contribution to sea level rise.

A third possible answer to the above question is yes, a current monitoring system exists but it is inadequate to meet the needs of an ACEWS and it therefore needs to be augmented. An example of this is the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) program, which is designed to observe the response of near-surface permafrost to climate change over long (multi-decadal) time scales. CALM, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Observing Network, would likely need to be expanded and more automated to function as an ACEWS, especially because, as described in the section on Potential Climate Surprises Due to High-Latitude Methane and Carbon Cycles in Chapter 2, there are large geographic coverage gaps in important regions.

The science of abrupt climate change is not settled; monitoring needs will evolve over time and an iterative mechanism would allow ongoing assessment and evaluation. There needs to be some mechanism to allow for evolution of the ACEWS. One way to do this would be the creation of an ACEWS steering committee that would regularly visit the state of ACEWS monitoring efforts, critically examine proposals for new monitoring systems, and ensure that the current systems are meeting their stated goals. This is described more below as part of the implementation section.

___________________

a Note: A GRACE follow-on mission is currently planned (see the FY 2014 President’s budget: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/740512main_FY2014%20CJ%20for%20Online.pdf).

b Any inventory effort could build upon existing efforts like those that follow on from work of the Environmental Protection Agency (http://plan.risingsea.net/index.html) and Climate Central (http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/).



Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
  • Improved collaborative networks to entrain new communities of scientists and researchers to take fresh looks at the problem; for example, integrating climate scientists with applied mathematicians, statisticians, dynamical systems experts, policy analysts, engineers, city planners, ethicists and others who ensure that the ACEWS meets the needs of a broad spectrum of stakeholders will result in a better ACEWS that produces products that are more useful to those affected;
  • Enhanced educational activities to provide a platform for innovation in producing a workforce that is comfortable working across the boundaries; and
  • Innovative tools—including new data analysis and modeling techniques, to allow for a novel perspective on abrupt change, as well as more robust statistical tools that are needed for analyzing and understanding non-linear dynamic systems and inter-connection among various climate fields; in some cases, this will include applications of tools created in a different context to the abrupt change problems.

These research elements are a key part of any monitoring or early warning system efforts.

Special Considerations for Designing and Implementing an ACEWS

Although the committee discusses some general concepts about implementing an ACEWS below, the implementation of an ACEWS should be planned and executed by those agencies that are tasked to do so and/or contribute funding to the effort. How that effort is organized is beyond the purview of the committee, and thus the ideas below should be viewed as suggestions intended to be helpful, and not prescriptive.

One important aspect of an ACEWS should be the integration of the effort, from the monitoring, through modeling and interpreting of the data, to producing scientific products including peer-reviewed publications and consumer-friendly data products. Examples of monitoring efforts in which the data have not been analyzed regularly are unfortunately common,5 and given the inherently time-sensitive nature of an ACEWS, such an outcome would be anathema to the intent of the system. A few examples of current monitoring programs that integrate monitoring with active interpretation of the data include the Long Term Ecological Programs of the National Science Foundation, NOAA’s atmospheric gas monitoring program, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory

____________________

5 The initial failure of satellite monitoring to identify the ozone hole over Antarctica because an automatic routine flagged anomalous data as potential errors shows what can happen without sufficiently integrated interpretation (see Grundmann, 2002 for a more complete historical account).

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

(SOFIA), and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Those programs that are currently operational fully integrate an active science program with observations, and have all been extremely successful in their respective missions. An ACEWS should build upon the success of these programs and others like them.

Being mindful of stakeholder priorities and meeting stakeholder needs is another aspect of a successful ACEWS that should be stressed. The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) is an example of a successful early warning program that integrates the needs of the user community with the monitoring and modeling systems. NIDIS incorporates a spectrum of drought-related products, including regional products tailored to the needs of specific regions, as a regular part of the system. In general, research focus and early warning signal detection would be most beneficial if they were prioritized based on societal impacts and likelihood of occurrence of the extreme events and resultant abrupt changes.

Another important aspect of a successful ACEWS is for the system to be flexible and adaptive. It is not enough to integrate data and interpretation, but the science involved in the interpretation should inform the whole system and help it to evolve to better meet the needs of society. This step is important for an ACEWS as in some cases we know what to watch for, such as changes in AMOC, and in some cases we are less sure, such as changes in Northern Hemisphere weather patterns that may accompany the large energy changes in the Arctic as sea ice melts, trading white sea ice that reflects solar energy for blue ocean that absorbs solar energy. Also, the system should be nimble enough to change focus if necessary as knowledge about abrupt change improves. It is clear today that there is much to learn about the threats of abrupt change, and an ACEWS would be best served if it were designed to evolve as knowledge, monitoring tools, and societal needs, evolve. NIDIS is an example of a system that strives to meet this goal. For example, the NIDIS Regional Drought Early Warning Systems explore a variety of early warning and drought risk reduction strategies, seeking to match user needs with observations and analyses while allowing for system adaptation and evolution.

Organization of an ACEWS would benefit from capitalizing on existing programs, but there will be a need to capture the interconnectedness of the various parts of the climate and human systems. ACEWS could eventually be run as a large, overarching program, but might better be started through coordination, integration, and expansion of existing and planned smaller programs like the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which is “a USAID-funded activity that collaborates with international, regional, and national partners to provide timely and rigorous early warning and

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

vulnerability information on emerging and evolving food security issues.”6 One possible mechanism to eventually achieve this overall coordination would be to start with a steering group who could provide efficient guidance. Such a steering committee could be made up of representatives of funding agencies, scientists, representatives of various user communities (including national security and interested businesses), and international partners, to name a subset of the possibilities. Subgroups or working groups may be able to bring focus to specific issues that require more attention as needed, e.g., water, food, or ecosystem services. Beyond a steering group, a number of interagency coordinating mechanisms exist, and the committee is not specifically recommending one over another. Whatever the mechanism, the committee does stress that coordination—to reduce duplication of efforts, maximize resources, and facilitate data and information sharing—is key to a successful ACEWS.

ACEWS: NEED FOR ACTION

As noted earlier, the proper design and implementation of an ACEWS will need to be an ongoing process and will require expertise from many different disciplines beyond just the physical sciences, as well as input from many different stakeholder groups. Providing a complete roadmap to a successful ACEWS was beyond the scope of this report, but the committee has outlined its initial thoughts on what would make such a system successful above. Much is known about the design, implementation, and sustainability of early warning systems that can be leveraged in addition what is described in this report. In summary, this report should be viewed as a call for an ACEWS to be designed, for to not make such a call would be to willfully ignore “dragons,” and that was an approach the committee strongly opposed.

The committee views this call as being particularly salient in light of its analysis of the previous reports on abrupt climate change, where a common theme emerged. Beginning with the 2002 NAS study (NRC, 2002), recommendations have been made to address the problem, but little follow-up action has been taken. To gain the benefits that science can offer on this topic, action is needed now. An ACEWS need not be overly expensive and need not be created from scratch, as many resources now exist that can contribute, but the time is here to be serious about the threat of tipping points so as to better anticipate and better prepare ourselves for the inevitable surprises.

____________________

6http://www.fews.net/Pages/default.aspx.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

“No matter how clear our foresight, no matter how accurate our computer models, a belief about the future should never be mistaken for the truth.

The future, as such, never occurs. It becomes the present.

And no matter how well we prepare ourselves, when the imagined future becomes the very real present, it never fails to surprise.”

—Alan AtKisson, Believing Cassandra

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

TABLE 4.1 State of knowledge on potential candidate processes that might undergo abrupt change. These include both abrupt climate changes in the physical climate system and abrupt climate impacts of ongoing changes that, when certain thresholds are crossed, can cause abrupt impacts for society and ecosystems. The near term outlook for this century is highlighted as being of particular relevance for decision makers generally.

Potential Abrupt Climate Change or Impact and Key Examples of Consequences Current Trend Near Term Outlook (for an Abrupt Change within This Century) Long Term Outlook (for a Significant Change1 after 2100) Level of Scientific Understanding Critical Needs (Research, Monitoring, etc.)
Abrupt Changes in the Ocean Disruption to Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)

• Up to 80 cm sea level rise in North Atlantic

• Southward shift of tropical rain belts

• Large disruptions to local marine ecosystems

• Ocean and atmospheric temperature and circulation changes

• Changes in ocean’s ability to store heat and carbon

Trend not clearly detected Low High Moderate

• Enhanced understanding of changes at high latitudes in the North Atlantic (e.g., warming and/or freshening of surface waters)

• Monitoring of overturning at other latitudes

• Enhanced understanding of drivers of AMOC variability

Sea level rise (SLR) from ocean thermal expansion

• Coastal inundation

• Storm surges more likely to cause severe impacts

Moderate increase in sea level rise Low2 High High

• Maintenance and expansion of monitoring of sea level (tide gauges and satellite data), ocean temperature at depth, local coastal motions, and dynamic effects on sea level

Sea level rise from destabilization of WAIS ice sheets

• 3-4 m of potential sea level rise

• Coastal inundation

• Storm surges more likely to cause severe impacts

Losing ice to raise sea level Unknown but Probably Low Unknown Low

• Extensive needs, including broad field, remote-sensing, and modeling research

Sea level rise from other ice sheets (including Greenland and all others, but not including WAIS loss)

• As much as 60m of potential sea level rise from all ice sheets

• Coastal inundation

• Storm surges more likely to cause severe impacts

Losing ice to raise sea level Low High High for some aspects, Low for others

• Maintenance and expansion of satellite, airborne, and surface monitoring capacity, process studies, and modeling research

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Potential Abrupt Climate Change or Impact and Key Examples of Consequences Current Trend Near Term Outlook (for an Abrupt Change within This Century) Long Term Outlook (for a Significant Change1 after 2100) Level of Scientific Understanding Critical Needs (Research, Monitoring, etc.)
Decrease in ocean oxygen (expansion in oxygen minimum zones [OMZs])

• Threats to aerobic marine life

• Release of nitrous oxide gas—a potent greenhouse gas—to the atmosphere

Trend not clearly detected Moderate High Low to Moderate

• Expanded and standardized monitoring of ocean oxygen content, pH, and temperature

• Improved understanding and modeling of ocean mixing

• Improved understanding of microbial processes in OMZs

Abrupt Changes in the Atmosphere Changes to patterns of climate variability (e.g., ENSO, annular modes)

• Substantial surface weather changes throughout much of extratropics if the extratropical jetstreams were to shift abruptly

Trends not detectable for most patterns of climate variability Exception is southern annular mode—detectable poleward shift of middle latitude jetstream Low Moderate Low to Moderate

• Maintaining continuous records of atmospheric pressure and temperatures from both in-situ and remotely sensed sources

• Assessing robustness of circulation shifts in individual ensemble members in climate change simulations

• Developing theory on circulation response to anthropogenic forcing

Increase in intensity, frequency, and duration of heat waves

• Increased mortality

• Decreased labor capacity

• Threats to food and water security

Detectable increasing trends Moderate (Regionally variable, dependent on soil moisture) High High

• Continued progress on understanding climate dynamics

• Increased focus on risk assessment and resilience

Increase in frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events (droughts/floods/hurricanes/major storms)

• Mortality risks

• Infrastructure damage

• Threats to food and water security

• Potential for increased conflict

Increasing trends for floods Trends for drought and hurricanes not clear Moderate Moderate to High Low to Moderate

• Continued progress on understanding climate dynamics

• Increased focus on risk assessment and resilience

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Potential Abrupt Climate Change or Impact and Key Examples of Consequences Current Trend Near Term Outlook (for an Abrupt Change within This Century) Long Term Outlook (for a Significant Change1 after 2100) Level of Scientific Understanding Critical Needs (Research, Monitoring, etc.)
Abrupt Changes at High Latitudes Increasing release of carbon stored in soils and permafrost

• Amplification of human-induced climate change3

Neutral trend to small trend in increasing soil carbon release Low High Moderate4

• Improved models of hydrology/cryosphere interaction and ecosystem response

• Greater study of role of fires in rapid carbon release

• Expanded borehole temperature monitoring networks

• Enhanced satellite and ground-based monitoring of atmospheric methane concentrations at high latitudes

Increasing release of methane from ocean methane hydrates

• Amplification of humaninduced climate change

Trend not clearly detected Low5 Moderate Moderate6

• Field and model based characterization of the sediment column

• Enhanced satellite and ground-based monitoring of atmospheric methane concentrations at high latitudes

Late-summer Arctic sea ice disappearance

• Large and irreversible effects on various components of the Arctic ecosystem

• Impacts on human society and economic development in coastal polar regions

• Implications for Arctic shipping and resource extraction

• Potential to alter large-scale atmospheric circulation and its variability

Strong trend in decreasing sea ice cover High Very high High

• Enhanced Arctic observations, including atmosphere, sea ice, and ocean characteristics

• Better monitoring and census studies of marine ecosystems

• Improved large-scale models that incorporate the evolving state of knowledge

Winter Arctic sea ice disappearance

• Same as late summer Arctic sea ice disappearance above, but more pronounced due to year-round lack of sea ice

Small trend (Decreasing but not disappearing) Low Moderate High

• Same as late summer Arctic sea ice disappearance above

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Potential Abrupt Climate Change or Impact and Key Examples of Consequences Current Trend Near Term Outlook (for an Abrupt Change within This Century) Long Term Outlook (for a Significant Change1 after 2100) Level of Scientific Understanding Critical Needs (Research, Monitoring, etc.)
Abrupt Changes in Ecosystems Rapid state changes in ecosystems, species range shifts, and species boundary changes

• Extensive habitat loss

• Loss of ecosystem services

• Threats to food and water supplies

Species range shifts significant; others not clearly detected Moderate High Moderate

• Long term remote sensing and in-situ studies of key systems

• Improved hydrological and ecological models

Increases in extinctions of marine and terrestrial species

• Loss of high percentage of coral reef ecosystems (already underway)

• Significant percentage of land mammal, bird, and amphibian species extinct or endangered7

Species and population losses accelerating (Portion attributable to climate is uncertain) High Very high Moderate

• Better understanding of how species interactions and ecological cascades might magnify extinctions intensity

• Better understanding of how interactions between climate-caused extinctions and other extinction drivers (habitat fragmentation, overexploitation, etc.) multiply extinction intensity

• Improved monitoring of key species

1 Change could be either abrupt or non-abrupt.

2 To clarify, the Committee assesses the near-term outlook that sea level will rise abruptly before the end of this century as Low; this is not in contradiction to the assessment that sea level will continue to rise steadily with estimates of between 0.26 and 0.82 m by the end of this century (IPCC, 2013).

3 Methane is powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas.

4 Limited by ability to predict methane production from thawing organic carbon

5 No mechanism proposed would lead to abrupt release of substantial amounts of methane from ocean methane hydrates this century.

6 Limited by uncertainty in hydrate abundance in near-surface sediments, and fate of CH4 once released

7 Species distribution models (Thuiller et al., 2006) indicate between 10–40% of mammals now found in African protected areas will be extinct or critically endangered by 2080 as a result of modeled climate change. Analyses by Foden et al.(2013) and Ricke et al. (2013) suggest 41% of bird species, 66% of amphibian species, and between 61% and 100% of corals that are not now considered threatened with extinction will become threatened due to climate change sometime between now and 2100.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×

This page intentionally left blank.

Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 147
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 148
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 149
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 150
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 151
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 152
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 153
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 154
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 155
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 156
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 157
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 158
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 159
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 160
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 161
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 162
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 163
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 164
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 165
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 166
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 167
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 168
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 169
Suggested Citation:"4 The Way Forward." National Research Council. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18373.
×
Page 170
Next: References »
Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises Get This Book
×
Buy Paperback | $60.00 Buy Ebook | $47.99
MyNAP members save 10% online.
Login or Register to save!
Download Free PDF

Climate is changing, forced out of the range of the past million years by levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases not seen in the Earth's atmosphere for a very, very long time. Lacking action by the world's nations, it is clear that the planet will be warmer, sea level will rise, and patterns of rainfall will change. But the future is also partly uncertain -- there is considerable uncertainty about how we will arrive at that different climate. Will the changes be gradual, allowing natural systems and societal infrastructure to adjust in a timely fashion? Or will some of the changes be more abrupt, crossing some threshold or "tipping point" to change so fast that the time between when a problem is recognized and when action is required shrinks to the point where orderly adaptation is not possible?

Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change is an updated look at the issue of abrupt climate change and its potential impacts. This study differs from previous treatments of abrupt changes by focusing on abrupt climate changes and also abrupt climate impacts that have the potential to severely affect the physical climate system, natural systems, or human systems, often affecting multiple interconnected areas of concern. The primary timescale of concern is years to decades. A key characteristic of these changes is that they can come faster than expected, planned, or budgeted for, forcing more reactive, rather than proactive, modes of behavior.

Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change summarizes the state of our knowledge about potential abrupt changes and abrupt climate impacts and categorizes changes that are already occurring, have a high probability of occurrence, or are unlikely to occur. Because of the substantial risks to society and nature posed by abrupt changes, this report recommends the development of an Abrupt Change Early Warning System that would allow for the prediction and possible mitigation of such changes before their societal impacts are severe. Identifying key vulnerabilities can help guide efforts to increase resiliency and avoid large damages from abrupt change in the climate system, or in abrupt impacts of gradual changes in the climate system, and facilitate more informed decisions on the proper balance between mitigation and adaptation. Although there is still much to learn about abrupt climate change and abrupt climate impacts, to willfully ignore the threat of abrupt change could lead to more costs, loss of life, suffering, and environmental degradation. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change makes the case that the time is here to be serious about the threat of tipping points so as to better anticipate and prepare ourselves for the inevitable surprises.

  1. ×

    Welcome to OpenBook!

    You're looking at OpenBook, NAP.edu's online reading room since 1999. Based on feedback from you, our users, we've made some improvements that make it easier than ever to read thousands of publications on our website.

    Do you want to take a quick tour of the OpenBook's features?

    No Thanks Take a Tour »
  2. ×

    Show this book's table of contents, where you can jump to any chapter by name.

    « Back Next »
  3. ×

    ...or use these buttons to go back to the previous chapter or skip to the next one.

    « Back Next »
  4. ×

    Jump up to the previous page or down to the next one. Also, you can type in a page number and press Enter to go directly to that page in the book.

    « Back Next »
  5. ×

    Switch between the Original Pages, where you can read the report as it appeared in print, and Text Pages for the web version, where you can highlight and search the text.

    « Back Next »
  6. ×

    To search the entire text of this book, type in your search term here and press Enter.

    « Back Next »
  7. ×

    Share a link to this book page on your preferred social network or via email.

    « Back Next »
  8. ×

    View our suggested citation for this chapter.

    « Back Next »
  9. ×

    Ready to take your reading offline? Click here to buy this book in print or download it as a free PDF, if available.

    « Back Next »
Stay Connected!