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WRITER FUEL: How Close Are We to Climate Tipping Points?

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Climate tipping points — the “points of no return” past which key components of Earth’s climate will begin to irreversibly break down — could be triggered by much lower temperatures than scientists previously thought, with some tipping points potentially already reached. There are also many more potential tipping points than scientists previously identified, according to a new study.

In climatology, a tipping point is defined as a rise in global temperature past which a localized climate system, or “tipping element” — such as the Amazon rainforest or the Greenland ice sheet — starts to irreversibly decline. Once a tipping point has been reached, that tipping element will experience runaway effects that essentially doom it forever, even if global temperatures retreat below the tipping point.

The idea of climate tipping points first emerged in a 2008 paper published in the journal PNAS, when researchers identified nine key tipping elements that could reach such a threshold due to human-caused climate change. In the new study, which was published Sept. 9 in the journal Science, a team of researchers reassessed data from more than 200 papers on the subject of tipping points published since 2008. They found that there are now 16 major tipping points, almost all of which could reach the point of no return if global warming continues beyond 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels.

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