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Past abrupt changes, tipping points and cascading impacts in the Earth system

July 29, 2021

The geological record shows that abrupt changes in the Earth system can occur on timescales short enough to challenge the capacity of human societies to adapt to environmental pressures. In many cases, abrupt changes arise from slow changes in one component of the Earth system that eventually pass a critical threshold, or tipping point, after which impacts cascade through coupled climate–ecological–social systems. The chance of detecting abrupt changes and tipping points increases with the length of observations. The geological record provides the only long-term information we have on the conditions and processes that can drive physical, ecological and social systems into new states or organizational structures that may be irreversible within human time frames. Here, we use well-documented abrupt changes of the past 30 kyr to illustrate how their impacts cascade through the Earth system. We review useful indicators of upcoming abrupt changes, or early warning signals, and provide a perspective on the contributions of palaeoclimate science to the understanding of abrupt changes in the Earth system.

Publication Year 2021
Title Past abrupt changes, tipping points and cascading impacts in the Earth system
DOI 10.1038/s41561-021-00790-5
Authors V. Brovkin, Edward J. Brook, J. Williams, S. Bathiany, T. Lenton, M. Barton, R. DeConto, J. Donges, A. Ganopolski, J. McManus, Summer K. Praetorius, A. de Vernal, A. Abe-Ouchi, H. Cheng, M Claussen, M. Crucifix, Virginia Iglesias, Darrell S. Kaufman, T. Kleinen, Fabrice Lambert, Sander van der Leeuw, Hannah Liddy, Marie-France Loutre, David McGee, Kira Rehfeld, Rachael H. Rhodes, Alistair W.R. Seddon, Lilian Vanderveken, Zicheng Yu
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Nature Geoscience
Index ID 70222471
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center