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Linked Climate Variability Between Distant Regions Highlights Interconnectivity of Global Climate Change

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) statement. “Our 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 out.”

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 quarter of the world’s species, and has been drastically declining since the early 2000s.

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 connected regions.

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 Arctic, the icy region is experiencing warming 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,” said 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 atmosphere.”

This comes just over a year after another study 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 events.

Despite the scientific community’s consensus 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 dangerously possible.

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 Livina has been developing 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 processes.”

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 matters. Understanding teleconnection may help identify future areas where conservation efforts such as reforestation could not only draw down carbon, but help boost the resilience of sensitive tipping elements.

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