Interacting tipping elements increase risk of climate domino effects under global warming


With progressing global warming, there is an increased risk that one or several tipping elements in the climate system might cross a critical threshold, resulting in severe consequences for the global climate, ecosystems and human societies. While the underlying processes are fairly well-understood, it is unclear how their interactions might impact the overall stability of the Earth's climate system. As of yet, this cannot be fully analysed with state-of-the-art Earth system models due to computational constraints as well as some missing and uncertain process representations of certain tipping elements.

Here, we explicitly study the effects of known physical interactions among the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the Amazon rainforest using a conceptual network approach. We analyse the risk of domino effects being triggered by each of the individual tipping elements under global warming in equilibrium experiments. In these experiments, we propagate the uncertainties in critical temperature thresholds, interaction strengths and interaction structure via large ensembles of simulations in a Monte Carlo approach.

Overall, we find that the interactions tend to destabilise the network of tipping elements. Furthermore, our analysis reveals the qualitative role of each of the four tipping elements within the network, showing that the polar ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica are oftentimes the initiators of tipping cascades, while the AMOC acts as a mediator transmitting cascades. This indicates that the ice sheets, which are already at risk of transgressing their temperature thresholds within the Paris range of 1.5 to 2 ∘C, are of particular importance for the stability of the climate system as a whole.


Link to centre authors: Donges, Jonathan
Publication info: Wunderling, N., Donges, J., Kurths, J., Winkelmann, R.. 2021. Interacting tipping elements increase risk of climate domino effects under global warming. Earth System Dynamics.