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

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1: Timeline of abrupt events over the past 30 kyr overlaid on a δ18O time series.
Fig. 2: Cascades of abrupt changes in physical–ecological–societal components of the Earth system.
Fig. 3: A map of selected atmospheric, oceanographic, ecosystem and societal records with abrupt changes or tipping points in the past 20 kyr.

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Acknowledgements

This paper is an outcome of the workshop ‘Abrupt changes, thresholds, and tipping points in Earth history and future implications’ held in Hamburg, Germany, in November 2018, which most of the authors attended. The workshop was officially endorsed by Analysis, Integration and Modeling of the Earth System (AIMES) and Past Global Changes (PAGES) of Future Earth and received financial support from PAGES and the Max Planck Society. We thank N. Noreiks for assistance with Fig. 3. F.L. acknowledges funding from ANID/MSI/Millennium Nucleus Paleoclimate under grant number ANID/FONDAP/15110009 and grant number ANID/FONDECYT/1191223. J.M. was supported in part by the US NSF. J.W.W. acknowledges funding from NSF grant number 1855781 and WARF. V.B., T.K. and M. Claussen acknowledge support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through the PalMod project. J.F.D. was supported by the Leibniz Association project DominoES and the European Research Council Advanced Grant project ERA (Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene; grant ERC-2016-ADG-743080

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All authors contributed to the literature assessment. V.B., S.B., J.W.W., E.B. and T.M.L. developed the concept and compiled the paper with support from all co-authors. All co-authors contributed to the discussion of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Victor Brovkin.

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Brovkin, V., Brook, E., Williams, J.W. et al. Past abrupt changes, tipping points and cascading impacts in the Earth system. Nat. Geosci. 14, 550–558 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00790-5

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