19. Are disaster scenarios about tipping points like ‘turning off the Gulf Stream’ and release of methane from the Arctic a cause for concern?

Results from the best available climate models do not predict abrupt changes in such systems (often referred to as tipping points) in the near future. However, as warming increases, the possibilities of major abrupt change cannot be ruled out.

The composition of the atmosphere is changing towards conditions that have not been experienced for millions of years, so we are headed for unknown territory, and uncertainty is large. The climate system involves many competing processes that could switch the climate into a different state once a threshold has been exceeded.

A well-known example is the south-north ocean overturning circulation, which is maintained by cold salty water sinking in the North Atlantic and which involves the transport of extra heat to the North Atlantic via the Gulf Stream. During the last ice age, pulses of freshwater from the ice sheet over North America led to slowing down of this overturning circulation and to widespread changes in climate around the Northern Hemisphere. Freshening of the North Atlantic from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is however, much less intense and hence is not expected to cause abrupt changes. As another example, Arctic warming could destabilise methane (a greenhouse gas) trapped in ocean sediments and permafrost, potentially leading to a rapid release of a large amount of methane. If such a rapid release occurred, then major, fast climate changes would ensue.

Such high-risk changes are considered unlikely in this century, but are by definition hard to predict. Scientists are therefore continuing to study the possibility of such tipping points beyond which we risk large and abrupt changes.

Questions and answers

Read short summary answers

1. Is the climate warming?
2. How do scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
3. CO2 is already in the atmosphere naturally, so why are emissions from human activity significant?
4. What role has the Sun played in climate change in recent decades?
5. What do changes in the vertical structure of atmospheric temperature – from the surface up to the stratosphere - tell us about the causes of recent climate change?
6. Climate is always changing. Why is climate change of concern now?
7. Is the current level of atmospheric CO2 concentration unprecedented in Earth’s history?
8. Is there a point at which adding more CO2 will not cause further warming?
9. Does the rate of warming vary from one decade to another?
10. Does the recent slowdown of warming mean that climate change is no longer happening?
11. If the world is warming, why are some winters and summers still very cold?
12. Why is Arctic sea ice reducing while Antarctic sea ice is not?
13. How does climate change affect the strength and frequency of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes?
14. How fast is sea level rising?
15. What is ocean acidification and why does it matter?
16. How confident are scientists that Earth will warm further over the coming century?
17. Are climate changes of a few degrees a cause for concern?
18. What are scientists doing to address key uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system?
19. Are disaster scenarios about tipping points like ‘turning off the Gulf Stream’ and release of methane from the Arctic a cause for concern?
20. If emissions of greenhouse gases were stopped, would the climate return to the conditions of 200 years ago?

Your questions

In addition to the 20 key questions answered in 'Climate Change: Evidence & Causes', we asked for your questions about the science of climate change on Google Moderator.

View all questions and our responses.

Download the answers (PDF).