Tipped Tipping Points, Feedback Loops, and the Domino Effect

By Daniel Brouse and Sidd Mukherjee
September 29, 2023, and November 12, 2023

Tipping points are Critical Milestones that directly impact the rate of acceleration in climate change by multiplying the number and intensity of feedback loops.

Tipping Points

Identifying and understanding these tipping points is crucial for climate science and policymaking. Crossing multiple tipping points could lead to a domino effect, resulting in a much more rapid and severe climate change than currently projected.

Push a glass toward the edge of a table and eventually it will fall off on its own. No matter how slowly or meticulously you push... no matter how you weight or fill the glass, it will reach a tipping point and fall off before being pushed completely off the table. No matter whether you believe the glass is half-empty or half-full, when the tipping point is reached it will plummet out-of-control to its end. This is science not fate, faith, nor belief. Human induced climate change has resulted in environmental tipping points being breached.

Tipping points, when crossed, trigger self-sustaining feedback loops that are no longer dependent on human activity. Similar to when a domino topples over hitting two more dominoes that in turn fall hitting more dominoes. Thus, the name The Domino Effect. It can also be visualized as The Snowball Effect. A tipping point is like a snowball rolling down a hill growing in mass and velocity (momentum). When a tipping point is crossed, it results in cumulative and reinforced global warming.

A look at six (7) of the multiple tipping points that show the proverbial snowball is already rolling. The first dominoes have fallen and will continue to knock down more tiles with each escalating step.

Crossing even a single tipping point is alarming. For instance, crossing the tipping point for 'mountain glacier loss' has immediate consequences: millions of people in Europe will be impacted by the lack of fresh water. Billions of people that live along coasts will be impacted by the saline infiltration and eventually by the submerging of their property. In September of 2022, UNESCO reported accelerated melting of glaciers in World Heritage sites, with glaciers in a third of sites set to disappear by 2050. In September of 2023, the GLAMOS glacier monitoring center found 10% of Swiss glaciers had disappeared in the last 2 years. They do not expect any Swiss glaciers will be left by 2050 no matter what actions are taken. If extreme measures are taken, they anticipate we may be able to save some polar glaciers.

This in and of itself should be alarming; however, it gets worse. Tipping points are parts of feedback loop systems. The ice-albedo feedback loop is an expression of the ability of surfaces to reflect sunlight (heat from the sun). Any loss of ice over a darker surface means the surface will absorb more heat and reflect less heat. This process makes the Earth warmer causing more loss of ice, which in turn causes more warming of the Earth. So, yes, the mountain ice tipping point is quite alarming for both its immediate impact as well as its self-sustaining growth to global warming; but wait, it gets more alarming. The increasing temperatures due to crossing a tipping point cause other tipping points to be toppled (The Domino Effect).

By the Autumn of 2023, it had become evident the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will completely melt. The process is irreversible and inevitable. The rain intensity is increasing faster today than ever known. The cool water from the melting ice at the poles is being drawn toward the center of the Earth and getting warmed to record high temperatures. The warm, moist air is circulating and moving over land. These changes in climate systems will cause other areas to experience unprecedented drought. We expect sea level rise will total about 270 feet over the next several millennia. It is episodic, and in the fast bits it can go up 3 feet every twenty years for five hundred years. The melting Arctic and Antarctic have multiple feedback loops including: enhanced oceanic heating and ice-albedo, Planck feedback, lapse-rate feedback, and cloud feedback.

The tipping point for the collapse of AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) was thought to be centuries away, at the earliest. In July of 2023, the study Warning of a forthcoming collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation was published in the journal Nature Communications. "Here we provide statistical significance and data-driven estimators for the time of tipping. We estimate a collapse of the AMOC to occur around mid-century (2025-2095) under the current scenario of future emissions." The collapse is likely to cause faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US, more severe storms in Europe, and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa. "From the study of past climate, we know changes in the AMOC have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate," said Prof. Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and world leading oceanographer. During the last Ice Age, winter temperatures changed by up to 10C within three years in some places. "We are dealing with a system that in some aspects is highly non-linear, so fiddling with it is very dangerous, because you may well trigger some surprises," he said. "I wish I knew where this critical tipping point is, but that is unfortunately just what we don't know. We should avoid disrupting the AMOC at all costs. It is one more reason why we should stop global warming as soon as possible." A feedback loop created by the AMOC tipping point would cause a disruption of weather systems and circulation. The result would be the loss of naturally occurring carbon sinks. One scenario is desertification of the Amazon rainforest. In 2023, the Amazon River and the Rio Negro set record low levels.

The tipping point / feedback loop problem is very complex (chaos theory) and exponentially alarming. Yet another tipping point appears to have been triggered before 2024 -- Amazon Rainforest Dieback. The Amazon is often referred to as 'the lungs of our planet.' Not only does the Amazon suck in huge quantities of CO2 and breath out O2, but the Amazon soils also store huge amounts of CO2. The desertification of the Amazon would result in a release of the carbon as the soils disappeared.

1) part of July was spent at record temperatures +3C
2) the collapse of the Amazon rainforest is likely to happen between +2 - 4C. The collapse of the Amazon is expected to occur because of changing weather patterns and circulation that result in drought.
3) Brazil set up a task force for "unprecedented drought in the Amazon"

Low river levels and hotter waters have killed masses of fish seen floating on river surfaces, contaminating the drinking water, Environment Minister Marina Silva said. "We have a very worrying situation. This record drought has disrupted river transport routes (dropping 30 cm / day) threatening food and water shortages, and a large fish mortality is already beginning." This was the effect of a periodic El Nino mixing with changes in weather patterns brought by global warming. "We are seeing a collision of two phenomena, one natural which is El Nino and the other a phenomenon produced by humans, which is the change in the Earth's temperature." Worsened by climate change, this combination has caused drought not seen before in the Amazon and "is incomparably stronger and could happen more frequently."

The average temperature for Brazil had been above the historical average from July through October of 2023. Rio de Janeiro recorded 42.5C on November 12, 2023 (a record for November) and high humidity on the 14th meant that it felt like 58.5C, municipal authorities said. Deadly humid heat is the greatest short term climate change risk to human health. On November 17, "a young Brazilian fan of US singer Taylor Swift died in Rio de Janeiro after falling ill inside the sweltering stadium where the superstar's concert was held, amid a record-breaking heatwave across large swathes of Brazil," as reported by ABC. "The show took place on the same day that Rio recorded its highest-ever heat index reading, which combines temperature and humidity, at 59.3 degrees Celsius (139 degrees Fahrenheit)."

Brazil's Pantanal wetlands are famous for their paradise of biodiversity. There were 2,387 fires in the Pantanal in the first 13 days of November 2023, an increase of more than 1,000 percent from the entire month of November last year, according to satellite monitoring by Brazilian space research agency INPE. "The situation is completely out of control. And between the heatwave and the wind, it's only going to get worse," says biologist Gustavo Figueiroa, head of the environmental group SOS Pantanal.

Rio Negro Climate Change Case Study
What do you know about the Rio Negro as it relates to climate change and carbon sinks? The Rio Negro gets its name from its color. The black water is caused by highly acidic and carbon rich water. One scientist that lives on the river called it similar to Coca-cola. In 2023, the Rio Negro recorded record low levels.

Most of the carbon discharged into the water helps the carbon to eventually sink in the ocean as a literal carbon sink. The lack of rain and drought conditions result in more vegetation dying and contribute to a feedback loop -- more plants die from less rain... and there is less rain to wash the excess carbon to the bottom of the ocean... resulting in more global warming... resulting in more dead vegetation.

A study of Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) in South American rivers found, "Small and steep catchments hosting organic rich forest soils and peatlands were the most sensitive and showed the highest and fastest DOC release if evaluated on a per unit area basis. Here, rain events caused a rapid exponential increase in DOC release...."

The study Effects of natural light and depth on rates of photo-oxidation of dissolved organic carbon in a major black-water river, the Rio Negro, Brazil found under natural sunlight during the dry seasons rates of complete photo-oxidation and changes in absorbance indices decayed exponentially. The deeper the water the less CO2 emissions created and the more carbon is sequestered at the bottom of the ocean.

The Amazon river was also at record lows during 2023. The drought conditions in the Amazon rain forest are unusual. We are watching the Rio Negro and Amazon Rivers as a case study for the slowing and/or collapse of the AMOC, the die-back of the Amazon, and the carbon cycle.

Coral Reefs' Tipping Point
Coral reefs confront unprecedented challenges arising from various stressors, many of which are directly tied to human activities. Some of these stressors possess critical tipping points, surpassing which can lead to the collapse of coral ecosystems. According to the European Geosciences Union's statement on January 2, 2024, specific tipping points include a temperature increase of 1.2℃ above pre-industrial levels and atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding 350 parts per million. Disturbingly, as of February 2024, the Earth's yearly average temperature has already risen to +1.5℃ and CO2 to 425 ppm, underscoring the urgency of addressing climate-related threats to coral reefs.

The cumulative impact of these climate-related stressors poses a severe threat to coral reefs worldwide. It's crucial to address the root causes of climate change and implement conservation measures to enhance the resilience of coral ecosystems. Protection of coral reefs involves both local and global efforts, including sustainable fishing practices, marine protected areas, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting coral reef restoration initiatives.

Coral reef ecosystems can be influenced by several feedback loops that contribute to reaching tipping points. These feedback loops often involve interactions between various environmental stressors and the responses of coral reefs.

The Domino Effect is also known as "tipping cascades" in climate science. Tipping cascades have emerged between biogeophysical and social-ecological systems. This Domino Effect is causing climate change to accelerate at an exponential rate.

The carbon sequestration from dissolved organic carbon is only one of the many carbon sinks in the Amazon. It is likely Amazon droughts will become more frequent and intense resulting in decarbonization at an exponential rate. The collapse of the AMOC will hasten the collapse of the Amazon. The collapse of the Amazon will hasten the collapse of the AMOC.

Feedback loops and tipping points are parts of an equation that determine the rate of acceleration in climate change. Triggering these tipping points results in the CO2 stored in nature to be released without the assistance of humans. Though we do not know how much carbon is stored in nature, it would be reasonable to assume that the temperature could be pushed from 3 degrees to 6 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Humans cannot thrive above a rise of 1.5 degrees. Much of the Earth will be uninhabitable if the temperature rises an additional 6 degrees Celsius. If humans also add 3 degrees Celsius, the temperature and humidity will approach a wet-bulb temperature that will not sustain human life.

For the first time in human history, global warming is going to continue no matter what humans do. Even if humans stopped their greenhouse gas emissions today, humans have invoked nature's greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the sooner humans stop their emissions, the better. In addition, humans must adapt their habitat to remove, reduce, and hinder nature's greenhouse gas emissions.

* Our climate model employs chaos theory to comprehensively consider human impacts and projects a potential global average temperature increase of 9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Addendum: Climate Change Review 2023

Sidd said, "Do you remember back in the early 2000's when we thought we wouldn't live to see the extreme changes due to global warming?"

Daniel replied, "I think 2023 is the most significant year so far. We saw confirmation of tipping points being crossed for Mountain Glacier Loss, Greenland Ice Sheet Collapse, Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse, and potentially the Collapse of AMOC."

Sidd continued, "We already knew that. It was Canada catching on fire that I could not believe. I never thought I'd live to see the day."

Daniel asked, "Do you think the permafrost and peatlands will have zombie fires and cause the permafrost tipping point?"

Sidd responded, "Yes. They are gone, too. We already know from the permafrost peatland fires in Siberia."

Daniel ponders, "Hmmmm... I guess that means my plan went up in smoke? My worst case scenario / last resort emergency plan was to escape to Canada."

NASA reported: Wildland fire experts have described Canada's 2023 fire season as record-breaking and shocking. Over the course of a fire season that started early and ended late, blazes have burned an estimated 18.4 million hectares. Hundreds of fires exceeded 10,000 hectares (39 square miles), large enough to be considered "megafires." These megafires were also unusually widespread this season, charring forests from British Columbia and Alberta in the west to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces in the east to the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in the north.

Forest fires cause a carbon feedback loop. The carbon emissions of Canada's fires outweighed the combined emissions from its oil and gas, transport and agriculture sectors. The fires also cause the melting of the permafrost and zombie fires to burn in the permafrost. The permafrost collapse is a self-sustaining feedback loop/tipping point. As the permafrost melts, the peatlands emit CO2 and methane. The increase in CO2 and methane results in more warming that results in more peatland emissions. A third feedback loop is created with lightning strikes. The study Forests at Risk Due to Lightning Fires found a sensitivity of extratropical intact forests to potential increases in lightning fires, which would have far-reaching consequences for terrestrial carbon storage and biodiversity. The results show that, on a global scale, lightning is the primary ignition source of fires in temperate and boreal forests. Global warming causes more extreme weather events and conditions for lightning creating more forest fires that create more warming and more lightning strikes.

The study Wildfire as a major driver of recent permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands published in the Journal Nature Communications found wildfires have caused a quarter of permafrost thaw (2,000 square kilometres) in Western Canada's boreal peatlands over the past 30 years. "Historically, permafrost in this area underwent a natural cycle of thawing and reforming, but given current climate conditions and projections for the future, this fire-induced thaw appears to be irreversible," said Carolyn Gibson, who conducted the research.

On January 1, 2024, the article, Why Are Alaska's Rivers Turning Orange?, was published in Scientific America. "Streams in Alaska are turning orange with iron and sulfuric acid. Scientists who have studied these rusting rivers agree that the ultimate cause is climate change. Kobuk Valley National Park has warmed by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.32 degrees Fahrenheit) since 2006 and could get another 10.2 degrees C hotter by 2100, a greater increase than projected for any other national park. The heat may already have begun to thaw 40 percent of the park's permafrost, the layer of earth just under the topsoil that normally remains frozen year-round. McPhee wanted to protect the Salmon River because humans had 'not yet begun to change it.' Now, less than 50 years later, we have done just that. The last great wilderness in America, which by law is supposed to be 'untrammeled by man,' is being trammeled from afar by our global emissions."

* Our climate model employs chaos theory to comprehensively consider human impacts and projects a potential global average temperature increase of 9℃ above pre-industrial levels.

What Can I Do?
There are numerous actions you can take to contribute to saving the planet. Each person bears the responsibility to minimize pollution, discontinue the use of fossil fuels, reduce consumption, and foster a culture of love and care. The Butterfly Effect illustrates that a small change in one area can lead to significant alterations in conditions anywhere on the globe. Hence, the frequently heard statement that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in the Atlantic. Be a butterfly and affect the world.

What you can do today. How to save the planet.

Additional Resources

Coral Reefs' Tipping Point Brouse (2024)
East Coast Atmospheric Rivers and AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) Brouse (2024)
Climate Change, the Jet Stream, and East Coast Atmospheric Rivers Brouse (2024)
Wildfires Brouse and Mukherjee (2024)
Climate Tipping Points: Insights for Effective Policy Action
Committed Global Warming Risks Triggering Multiple Climate Tipping Points
The AMOC: tipping this century, or not?

The Reign of Violent Rain

How is All Real Estate at Risk From Climate Change?

The Human Induced Climate Change Experiment

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