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Image: The Tibetan Plateau | Encyclopedia Brittanica
A new report on teleconnections between the Amazon rainforest and the Tibetan Plateau creates new understanding of interconnected tipping elements and their perilously close tipping points: “The major lesson here is that it’s a small world.”
Climate variability in the Amazon rainforest directly impacts the Tibetan
Plateau, according to a recent study.
The report, in the
journal Nature, reveals interconnectivity between the two vulnerable yet
disparate regions and their bonded tipping points — planetary connections
sensitive to climate change that shift abruptly once certain thresholds are
reached. The report discovers a likely domino effect between the tipping points
of earth’s systems: When one tipping point is triggered, it drastically affects
other regions — indicating the cascading effects that one region can have
another halfway across the planet.
“For the first time, we’ve now been able to robustly identify and quantify these
so-called teleconnections,” report co-author Jingfang Fan said in a Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
research confirms that Earth system tipping elements are indeed inter-linked
even over long distances; and the Amazon is one key example how this could play
Tipping elements are regions or ecosystems that are influenced by tipping points
— critical thresholds that, when crossed, can cause significant and often
irreversible changes. Triggering one tipping point may
trigger others. The Nature
report is one of the first studies to use network analysis to uncover the
interconnected impacts of prominent global tipping elements.
The report underlies the existence of something called teleconnection — or the
linked effects of climate change over long distances over thousands of
kilometers. Climate extremes have been demonstrated to be synchronized between
the Amazon and Tibetan Plateau. The Amazon is an important tipping element due
to its size and significant contributions to the planetary carbon and water
cycle. It’s also home to a
of the world’s species, and has been drastically
declining since the early
The researchers mapped temperature changes in over 65,000 subregions around the
globe over the last 40 years, allowing them to identify correlated changes
between regions. Computer models then simulated possible outcomes for the two
As far as the climate is concerned, the results aren’t great.
As precipitations increase in the Amazon, snowfall decreases in the Tibetan
Plateau. And when temperatures rise in the Amazon, they also go up in the
Plateau. Snow cover data shows the Tibetan Plateau has been losing snow cover
since 2008, suggesting a possible tipping point may be approaching.
This has drastic climatic and social repercussions, as the Tibetan Plateau is a
major water source for
billions of people. And like the
the icy region is experiencing
much faster than the global average.
To be clear, it’s unlikely that the entire climate system of the world will
reach a global tipping point immediately. But as the planet’s temperature rises,
so do the risks of triggering regional tipping points.
“Over time, sub-continental tipping events can severely affect entire societies
and threaten important parts of the biosphere,”
report co-author Hans Joachim
Schellnhuber in a statement.
“This is a risk we should rather avoid. And we can do so by rapidly reducing
greenhouse gas emissions and by developing nature-based solutions for removing
CO2 from the
This comes just over a year after another
done in collaboration with PIK discovered evidence for 16 global tipping points
in the earth’s climate system. Current global warming of 1.1°C above
pre-industrial averages has already potentially initiated five tipping points.
More become likely as warming increases, with compounding likelihood of
cascading effects as well as the potential for triggering additional tipping
Despite the scientific community’s
that over 1.5°C of global warming will spell doom for life as we know it,
we’re on track to reach 2-3°C warming; and we may have already passed five
dangerous tipping points with just 1.1°C heating. At 1.5°C, four tipping points
move from possible to likely; and an additional five other tipping points become
Scientists still don’t know precisely how or when tipping points are reached,
but every fraction of a degree of prevented warming makes a difference in
abating the cascading domino effect of tipping points triggered by warming.
It’s likely all of the planet's other tipping points share teleconnections with
each other. Tipping points for other regions will result in cascading feedback
loops across the world. And though the climate probably has some wiggle room
in terms of tipping-point triggering, the more that are triggered
simultaneously, the greater the likelihood of severe climate disruption — a risk
researchers caution isn’t worth taking.
The study underlines that the nature of climate change isn’t defined by national
or regional borders. Key hotspots like the Amazon and Arctic can’t be viewed in
isolation, because what happens locally is not just the result of local actions,
which indicates the need for robust systems thinking on a global scale.
“The major lesson here is that it’s a small world.”
Since 2007, Dr. Valerie
time-series techniques for tipping point analysis, early warning, detection and
forecast of tipping in dynamic systems. In a companion
summary of the study,
Livina notes that this is the first time teleconnections have been found between
climate tipping points. Tipping points have been studied on their own for years,
but scientists are just starting to understand how they might be connected to
one another at global scale. It’s a novel area of research, and the new report
on Amazon-Tibetan Plateau teleconnection opens a new chapter on understanding
global interconnected tipping elements.
“Network analysis allows you to consider various measurements across the globe
as nodes, or like a network on the internet,” Livina says. “There are servers
and there are users; and they are all connected. In climate, this network can be
very surprisingly connected over counterintuitive areas via atmospheric and
oceanic processes. We don’t understand the whole process in full detail yet, and
detecting such connections may elucidate our understanding of geophysical
Next research steps will involve understanding the mechanisms facilitating
teleconnected tipping points and elements.
While atmospheric CO2 concentrations are pretty much homogeneous anywhere in the
world, where climate-mitigation projects happen
Understanding teleconnection may help identify future areas where conservation
efforts such as
could not only draw down carbon, but help boost the resilience of sensitive
Published Mar 3, 2023 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.