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Explainer: Nine ‘Tipping Points’ that Could Be Triggered by Climate Change

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Explainer: Nine ‘Tipping Points’ that Could Be Triggered by Climate Change

Carbon Brief,

5 min read
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Global warming hurtles Earth toward nine tipping points that threaten dramatic, irreversible change.

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  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Applicable


Global warming is moving our planet’s essential systems toward tipping points, where minuscule changes can produce irrevocable damage. Most scientists agree that a tipping point designates an abrupt change when an environmental system is forced across a threshold from which it can’t recover, causing significant, sometimes permanent destruction. Disappearing glaciers, increased droughts, sea level rise and hotter temperatures are warning signs. The process may take decades or centuries, but once the tipping begins, it can’t be stopped.


Climate change is disrupting the Atlantic Ocean’s Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) system.

The AMOC system is part of a global network of water and heat circulation. Warm water flows from the tropics northward to Europe. There the water cools, sinks and moves back toward the equator. Global warming heats the water and dilutes it with freshwater runoff, mainly from Greenland’s ice sheet. The lighter fresh water can no longer sink, so circulation slows down. Research suggests a 15% weakening of the AMOC system since the mid-20th century. 

Some projections indicate a complete shutdown within 100 years, triggering catastrophic climate impacts on Earth’s northern hemisphere. Colder temperatures and less rainfall will cause loss of farmlands, and massive sea life die-offs. These effects are almost certain if global temperatures rise 3 to 4°C [5.4 to 7.2°F].

If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) disintegrates, coastlines will experience significant impacts.

The WAIS has constant contact with water, making it particularly vulnerable to warming oceans. Annual ice loss...

About the Author

Robert McSweeney is Carbon Brief’s science editor. He holds an MEng in mechanical engineering from the University of Warwick and an MSc in climate change from the University of East Anglia. He previously spent eight years working on climate change projects at the consultancy firm Atkins.

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