Abrupt climate change

An abrupt climate change occurs when the climate system is forced to transition to a new climate state at a rate that is determined by the climate system energy-balance, and which is more rapid than the rate of change of the external forcing.[1] Past events include the end of the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse,[2] Younger Dryas,[3] Dansgaard-Oeschger events, Heinrich events and possibly also the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum.[4] The term is also used within the context of global warming to describe sudden climate change that is detectable over the time-scale of a human lifetime. One proposed cause of such events is feedback loops within the climate system both enhance small perturbations and cause a variety of stable states.[5]

Timescales of events described as 'abrupt' may vary dramatically. Changes recorded in the climate of Greenland at the end of the Younger Dryas, as measured by ice-cores, imply a sudden warming of +10 °C (+18 °F) within a timescale of a few years.[6] Other abrupt changes are the +4 °C (+7.2 °F) on Greenland 11,270 years ago[7] or the abrupt +6 °C (11 °F) warming 22,000 years ago on Antarctica.[8] By contrast, the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum may have initiated anywhere between a few decades and several thousand years. Finally, Earth Systems models project that under ongoing greenhouse gas emissions as early as 2047, the Earth's near surface temperature could depart from the range of variability in the last 150 years, affecting over 3 billion people and most places of great species diversity on Earth.[9]


According to the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change of the National Research Council:[1][10]

There are essentially two definitions of abrupt climate change:

  • In terms of physics, it is a transition of the climate system into a different mode on a time scale that is faster than the responsible forcing.
  • In terms of impacts, "an abrupt change is one that takes place so rapidly and unexpectedly that human or natural systems have difficulty adapting to it".

These definitions are complementary: the former gives some insight into how abrupt climate change comes about ; the latter explains why there is so much research devoted to it.


Possible tipping elements in the climate system include: regional effects of global warming, some of which had abrupt onset and may therefore be regarded as abrupt climate change.[11] Scientists have stated that "Our synthesis of present knowledge suggests that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under anthropogenic climate change."[11]

It has been postulated that teleconnections, oceanic and atmospheric processes, on different timescales, connect both hemispheres during abrupt climate change.[12]

The IPCC states that global warming "could lead to some effects that are abrupt or irreversible".[13]

In an article in Science, Richard Alley et al. said "it is conceivable that human forcing of climate change is increasing the probability of large, abrupt events. Were such an event to recur, the economic and ecological impacts could be large and potentially serious."[14]

A 2013 report from the U.S. National Research Council called for attention to the abrupt impacts of climate change, stating that even steady, gradual change in the physical climate system can have abrupt impacts elsewhere—in human infrastructure and ecosystems for example—if critical thresholds are crossed. The report emphasizes the need for an early warning system that could help society better anticipate sudden changes and emerging impacts.[15]

Scientific understanding of abrupt climate change is generally poor.[16] The probability of abrupt change for some climate related feedbacks may be low.[17][18] Factors that may increase the probability of abrupt climate change include higher magnitudes of global warming, warming that occurs more rapidly, and warming that is sustained over longer time periods.[18]

Climate models

Climate models are unable yet to predict abrupt climate change events, or most of the past abrupt climate shifts.[19] A potential abrupt feedback due to thermokarst lake formations in the Arctic, in response to thawing permafrost soils, releasing additional greenhouse gas methane, is currently not accounted for in climate models.[20]

Possible precursor

Most abrupt climate shifts, are likely due to sudden circulation shifts, analogous to a flood cutting a new river channel. The best-known examples are the several dozen shutdowns of the North Atlantic Ocean's Meridional Overturning Circulation during the last ice age, affecting climate worldwide.[14]

  • The current warming of the Arctic, the duration of the summer season, is considered abrupt and massive.[19]
  • Antarctic ozone depletion caused significant atmospheric circulation changes.[19]
  • There have also been two occasions when the Atlantic's Meridional Overturning Circulation lost a crucial safety factor. The Greenland Sea flushing at 75 °N shut down in 1978, recovering over the next decade.[21] Then the second-largest flushing site, the Labrador Sea, shut down in 1997[22] for ten years.[23] While shutdowns overlapping in time have not been seen during the fifty years of observation, previous total shutdowns had severe worldwide climate consequences.[14]


Global oceans have established patterns of currents. Several potential disruptions to this system of currents have been identified as a result of global warming:


Hansen et al. 2015 found, that the shutdown or substantial slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), besides possibly contributing to extreme end-Eemian events, will cause a more general increase of severe weather. Additional surface cooling from ice melt increases surface and lower tropospheric temperature gradients, and causes in model simulations a large increase of mid-latitude eddy energy throughout the midlatitude troposphere. This in turn leads to an increase of baroclinicity produced by stronger temperature gradients, which provides energy for more severe weather events.[29]

Consequential effects

Abrupt climate change has likely been the cause of wide ranging and severe effects:

Climate feedback effects

One source of abrupt climate change effects is a feedback process, in which a warming event causes a change which leads to further warming. This can also apply to cooling. Example of such feedback processes are:


Isostatic rebound in response to glacier retreat (unloading), increased local salinity, have been attributed to increased volcanic activity at the onset of the abrupt Bølling-Allerød warming, are associated with the interval of intense volcanic activity, hinting at a interaction between climate and volcanism - enhanced short-term melting of glaciers, possibly via albedo changes from particle fallout on glacier surfaces.[38]

Past events

Several periods of abrupt climate change have been identified in the paleoclimatic record. Notable examples include:

  • About 25 climate shifts, called Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles, which have been identified in the ice core record during the glacial period over the past 100,000 years.
  • The Younger Dryas event, notably its sudden end. It is the most recent of the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles and began 12,900 years ago and moved back into a warm-and-wet climate regime about 11,600 years ago. It has been suggested that: "The extreme rapidity of these changes in a variable that directly represents regional climate implies that the events at the end of the last glaciation may have been responses to some kind of threshold or trigger in the North Atlantic climate system."[39] A model for this event based on disruption to the thermohaline circulation has been supported by other studies.[27]
  • The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, timed at 55 million years ago, which may have been caused by the clathrate gun effect,[40] although potential alternative mechanisms have been identified.[41] This was associated with rapid ocean acidification[33]
  • The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, also known as the great dying, in which up to 95% of all species became extinct, has been hypothesized to be related to a rapid change in global climate.[42][43] Life on land took 30 million years to recover.[30]
  • The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse occurred 300 million years ago, at which time tropical rainforests were devastated by climate change. The cooler, drier climate had a severe effect on the biodiversity of amphibians, the primary form of vertebrate life on land.[2]

There are also abrupt climate changes associated with the catastrophic draining of glacial lakes. One example of this is the 8.2 kiloyear event, which associated with the draining of Glacial Lake Agassiz.[44] Another example is the Antarctic Cold Reversal, c. 14,500 years before present (BP), which is believed to have been caused by a meltwater pulse from the Antarctic ice sheet. These rapid meltwater release events have been hypothesized as a cause for Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles,[45]

A 2017 study concluded that similar conditions to today's Antarctic ozone hole (atmospheric circulation and hydroclimate changes), ∼17,700 years ago, when stratospheric ozone depletion contributed to abrupt accelerated Southern Hemisphere deglaciation. The event coincidentally happened with an estimated 192-year series of massive volcanic eruptions, attributed to Mount Takahe in West Antarctica.[46]

See also


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