Tipping points in ocean and atmosphere circulations
Abstract. In this review, we assess scientific evidence for tipping points in ocean and atmosphere circulations. The warming of oceans, modified wind patterns and increasing freshwater influx from melting ice hold the potential to disrupt established circulation patterns. The literature provides evidence for oceanic tipping points in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre (SPG), and the Antarctic Overturning Circulation, which may collapse under warmer and ‘fresher’ (i.e. less salty) conditions. A slowdown or collapse of these oceanic circulations would have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the climate system and could lead to strong impacts on human societies and the biosphere.
Among the atmospheric circulation systems considered, we classify the West African monsoon as a tipping system. Its abrupt changes in the past have led to vastly different vegetation states of the Sahara (e.g. “green Sahara” states). Evidence about tipping of the monsoon systems over South America and Asia is limited however, there are multiple potential sources of destabilisation, including large-scale deforestation, air pollution, and shifts in other circulation patterns (in particular the AMOC). Although theoretically possible, there is currently little indication for tipping points in tropical clouds or mid-latitude atmospheric circulations. Similarly, tipping towards a more extreme or persistent state of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is currently not fully supported by models and observations.
While the tipping thresholds for many of these systems are uncertain, tipping could have severe socio-environmental consequences. Stabilising Earth’s climate (along with minimising other environmental pressures, like aerosol pollution and ecosystem degradation) is critical for reducing the likelihood of reaching tipping points in the ocean-atmosphere system.
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