November 22, 2022

Climate Tipping Points: Real Threats or Misinformation?

It seems like there is another strident climate "tipping point" headline every other day.  

Threats of irreversible catastrophic climate change just around the corner.

The truth is that such claims by some media outlets and climate activists are contrary to the best science.

An attempt to sow worry and panic, with the motivation to motivate people to "do the right thing."  And it is both unethical and counterproductive.


What is a climate tipping point?  

According to the  Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tipping point is defined as

the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place

And a climate tipping point can be defined as

 a critical threshold that, when crossed, leads to large and often irreversible changes in the climate system.

Specifically, the idea is that increasing greenhouse gases (like CO2) will result in warming that will produce large, irreversible changes in the climate system.    

Like driving off a cliff.  And that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations later will not help.  The changes would be irreversible.  We could not go back.



Sounds scary, doesn't it?   

Fortunately, the best science suggests that such tipping points do not threaten the global climate system of our planet. 

Yes, global warming from increasing greenhouse gases is expected.  But the resulting changes in the climate during the next century should be slow and reversible.  None of the many climate simulations driven by large increases in CO2 indicate a tipping point.

Consider a collection of 20 CMIP-5 global climate model simulations, run with CO2 emissions ranging from crazy high (RCP8.5) to more probable (RCP4.5).  As shown below, there is some variability in the warming for each of these warming scenarios, but NONE go up suddenly into uncontrolled warming.  No tipping points.  Other climate simulations suggest the same thing.

What about global warming in the Northwest?  

As part of my research, I have run high-resolution climate models driven by the highly aggressive RCP8.5 scenario.  Looking at a dozen regional simulations, each driven by a different international climate model, there are NO TIPPING POINTS for Seattle temperatures over the next century.   Just a steady rise with some variability around the mean.


What about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change),  the most well-known and respected body on global warming and climate change?   

They are emphatic that there is no evidence of imminent (over the next century) tipping points for the Earth's climate.   Let me provide some examples.

The loss of Arctic sea ice?   This is what the IPCC (Special Report on implications of 1.5C or more warming, Chapter 3) says:

"there is little evidence for a tipping point in the transition from perennial to seasonal ice cover. No evidence has been found for irreversibility or tipping points, suggesting that year-round sea ice will return given a suitable climate"

Melting of the arctic permafrost releasing warming methane gas?  No tipping point

"the carbon released to the atmosphere from thawing permafrost is projected to be restricted to 0.09–0.19 Gt C yr–1 at 2°C of global warming and to 0.08–0.16 Gt C yr–1 at 1.5°C, which does not indicate a tipping point"

Heatwaves and heatwave deaths?  This is what the IPCC says

Increases in ambient temperature are linearly related to hospitalizations and deaths once specific thresholds are exceeded (so there is not a tipping point per se).


Global warming is a serious issue but there are no impending cliffs for the global climate.  No imminent tipping points for the global climate.

With that being the case, some climate advocates have gotten creative and are now pushing local tipping points.   One recent paper (Lenton et al., 2019) claims nine local tipping points (see below), including changes in fires and pests in Canada.  Many of these claims are poorly supported by the best science.


Even the Seattle Times has joined the tipping point crowd, claiming that climate change threatens a tipping point for the Western Red Cedar (see below).  As I will discuss in a future blog, this Seattle Times article is full of errors.


Climate Deception

Those pushing climate tipping points are doing the devil's work.   They know that the effects of human-caused climate change are currently relatively modest.   But folks aren't sufficiently motivated to take the actions the activists want.  So they have decided to scare the population, with an impending, terrifying precipice of climate change.

Not ethical, not based on science.  And they are causing folks psychological harm and pushing governments to make poor decisions.


49 comments:

  1. I'm thinking about the fact that millions of years ago it was warmer. Perhaps there was even more CO2 in the atmosphere. And yet the climate cooled and we find ourselves here. Seems things can improve

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    1. Chris, even a rudimentary knowledge of climate indicates the earth has had vast changes in climate over the past 4.5 billion years. Also, vast changes in geography. The continents have moved and even been destroyed, and new ones created. Sea levels have varied up to 400 feet. The amount of CO2, O2 and other atmospheric gases are reasonably well-known back billions of years. All this and much more is known. What is also known is that in the past 800,000 years the amount of CO2 has ranged from about 185 to about 300 ppm. And significant changes in CO2 took millennia to occur. In the past 50 years the amount of CO2 has gone from about 300 ppm to about 415 ppm. At no time in history has the CO2 changed that much that fast. And in periods millions of years ago when the CO2 level was as high as today the world's average temperature was much higher. And the current CO2 levels track very well with human created additional CO2 created by the use of oil beginning 150 years ago. Hoping for a natural change in climate reducing average temperatures when human causes are dramatic is a fool's errand. There is no question that humans are the predominant cause of global warming right now. The question, as Cliff often points out, is how much change how fast. I believe Cliff's point is that the effects of global warming are linear, that is peak heat waves will be a few degrees warmer, not amplified in some way to be 10's of degrees warmer in some places even though the average is only 2 or 3 degrees warmer. Climate change is real, just not the exaggerated version that some people are claiming. Climate change deniers are clearly out of touch, as well.

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  2. 11/22 was quite a dark day. I recorded just 6hr49min of measurable daylight (9:10AM - 3:59PM) with 0.31MJ/m^2 of accumulated solar energy.

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  3. Cliff - you repeatedly reference the mysterious 'they' in the Climate Deception portion of this post. Who are they? What is their motivation? What are they supposed to gain from "doing the devil's work"?

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    1. Just do a google search on tipping points....you will see them immediately. What is their motivation? That will take another blog to explore that....but you can imagine why.

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    2. I really can't. What would 'they' gain by so many people being misinformed? Wouldn't 'they' want people to have the most accurate information possible? What do you think they want people to do once misinformed?

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    3. You must always follow the money in these situations - when millions of dollars of grants are being awarded, there is every reason for unscrupulous individuals to push a narrative that will only benefit themselves.

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    4. I'm with Shepley. How do you know about these supposed grants? Where's the proof? If this isn't already well established knowledge up for public consumption... and if it's just a weather professor blogger and a bunch of commenters barking around, then it enters the realm of conspiracy theory. I'd still like to see Cliff and some of his detractors do a podcast debate so the people can learn from that. I'd like to believe that the sky is falling people are full of baloney...i really want to believe that...but I have not seen enough proof.

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    5. There are lots of people who are willing to opine on subjects they know little to nothing about to make themselves look like they know something. This is particularly true in political environments. There are lots of people who want to exaggerate to support their prejudiced political views. Shepley and Anon can easily find the information Cliff is referring to with a Google search.

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  4. You addressed each tipping point in isolation as though the others don't exist. But what is being observed is that each factor reinforces the others. What about synergistic results? And your use of 100 years as the cut-off for your analysis is arbitrary and meaningless. If it takes 150 years to be full on over the tipping point it would still be far, far shorter than other climate changes the earth has experienced. So far the world's governments and institutions have failed to stop climate change and there is no objective reason to believe they will get their collective act together in the next 150 years.

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    1. r223. The models DO consider the synergistic effects. There are no indications of tipping points at 150 years. If there are no tipping points for a long period (say 100 years) humanity has plenty of time to develop and field new energy technologies and technologies to pull CO2 out of the air...cliff

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    2. Why is it that no climatology discussions include the infamous "Little Ice Age" that decimated the northern latitude's crops over a number of years? There are factual reports of the Thames freezing over in the middle of summer (WTF?), as well as snow in July along the eastern seaboard of the US, as well as in Europe. The human population of the world was nascent compared to today's, and CO2 emissions were likewise neglible. If you're going to cherry pick some arbitrary number like "150 years" as some kind of example then you have no alternative but to include hundreds of years of data - period, full stop.

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    3. "humanity has plenty of time to develop and field new energy technologies and technologies to pull CO2 out of the air."

      Yeah, but in the mean time, a lot of people will be dead, and a lot of species will be extinct. Look, I have no doubt that in a thousand years, things will be better. But in forty years or so, things will be really bad if we don't fix this problem. Talk to military and foreign policy experts if you doubt me. Syria destabilized much of the region when it imploded. It wasn't just that region, either. Refugees spread to otherwise stable democracies in Europe, leading to the rise of the far right. Syria is a country of roughly 20 million. Bangladesh has over 160 million. 30 million depend on the water from Lake Chad. You get the idea.

      It is fine to take the "long view" and hope that in 200 years we will eventually fix the cause of the problem. But the same could be said for any foreign policy disaster. Japan, Italy and Germany are really nice places now -- we fixed it. But that wasn't the case in the 1930s.

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    4. But wasn't the little ice age the cause of massive volcanic eruptions the likes of which the earth has not experienced since? I believe their was a direct correlation between the volcanic eruptions in the Iceland and Greenland that caused European glaciers to expand, impacting the climate for a prolonged period of time.

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    5. That has been speculated, but never proven. For example, Krakatowa is the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded, but it's impact on the earth's weather lasted for around a year.

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    6. Eric, your comments expose your limited knowledge of climate and paleoclimatology. Perhaps you should get a book, or two, and read up on the subject. Your points and criticisms are well known and have been for years. You did not just discover these things. There is much science to explain them or refute them.

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  5. "But folks aren't sufficiently motivated to take the actions the activists want. So they have decided to scare the population, with an impending, terrifying precipice of climate change."

    I don't think the juvenile delinquents working at the Seattle Times care if anyone takes action or not. Their goal is to dramatize life and get people as overly excited as possible, making money in the process. Truth is, it's tiring.

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    1. I agree. I also lost Dr. Mass at this point: "they are causing folks psychological harm and pushing governments to make poor decisions." What decisions are those?

      Just to be clear -- I agree with the general complaint. There is no tipping point. On that we agree. But what is the harm? At worst people become fatalistic, and think nothing can be done. But that is by no means the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the one Dr. Mass alluded to -- people aren't sufficiently motivated to take the actions the activists want -- i. e. the actions that experts agree are necessary to prevent this catastrophe.

      By way of analogy, consider the pandemic. Those who understood the science took it seriously, and helped prevent the spread. But there were plenty who underestimated it. Now imagine that there were people who made it out to be worse than it really was. At worst those people would have done the responsible thing -- the thing the experts told them to do in the first place.

      Which goes back to the original question -- what poor decisions are being made because people think there is a tipping point?

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  6. Can equilibrium models ever predict tipping points without the tipping points being fully understood ahead of time?

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    1. climate models are NOT equilibrium models. They do not assume equilibrium. And the answer is yes...they can be understood and predicted ahead of time.

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  7. the kelp forest die off in coastal CA between 2014 and 2016 would be another one of these examples of these alleged tipping points. https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/03/10/why-kelp-forests-are-crucial-in-the-fight-against-climate-change; then in 2021 they rebounded. Something the media nor science community never explained. https://baynature.org/2021/09/13/kelp-forests-surge-back-on-the-north-coast-with-a-lesson-about-stable-environments/ Similarly, Cliff you soundly explained the gap in climate change theory implicated in worsening west coast fires, while analyzing the data, and explaining why that theory is not sound, including evidence with this year's benign fire season in CA. I did the climate anxiety thing back in 2015 for awhile. Then realized the claims are becoming absurd. After almost 10 years, two science degrees later, I am losing hope for apolitical scientific communication. At this point I only trust climate and the science community that is apolitical, sadly those few people are hard to find these days.

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  8. I wasn't there but some folks claim warm times of the recent past have been better than the cold periods. For example there was a time 7,000 ybp, another at 5,000, The Roman Climate Optimum, and the Medieval Warm Period. The last was followed by the Little Ice Age (LIA), with intervals at 1650, 1770, and 1850.
    Headlines mentioning tipping points almost exclusively mention bad happenings but historical accounts, if I read correctly, suggest a little warming will be good.

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  9. Perhaps as reasonable climate scientists talk about the need for more research on the potential effects of climate change on specific regions the strident crowd is devising countering propaganda for localities.

    Similarly when the recent energy problems the EU is facing due to dependency on Russian sources began, German state TV (Deutsche Welle) reran all their old segments on the problems with fracking and nuclear to counter media stories on the need for the EU to be more energy independent using existing technology.



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  10. No tipping point needed in the ongoing loss and eventual disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic. The long-term trend caused by carbon emissions. will be enough to have catastrophic effects on the region without any tipping points.

    "Even without a tipping point, researchers say, Arctic sea ice will continue on its downward trend. Since the satellite record began in 1979, Arctic sea ice has been declining in all seasons, with the month of September seeing the most drastic drop, about 13 percent per decade. As climate change continues, the warmer air and ocean will continue to thin multiyear ice. As multiyear ice is supplanted with first-year ice, the Arctic will be more vulnerable to triggers that cause rapid loss events. So while the tipping-point argument can perhaps be laid to rest, the Arctic will experience ice-free summers before 2050."

    https://nsidc.org/learn/ask-scientist/does-arctic-sea-ice-have-tipping-point

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    1. I wonder what the catastrophic effects will be. It seems in earlier warming events there were none.
      "It will without doubt have come to your Lordship's knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated.
      (This) affords ample proof that new sources of warmth have been opened and give us leave to hope that the Arctic Seas may at this time be more accessible than they have been for centuries past, and that discoveries may now be made in them not only interesting to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations."
      President of the Royal Society, London, to the Admiralty, 20th November, 1817

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    2. OK, but then please explain the significant growth of Anarctic sea ice over the past few decades?
      https://eos.org/science-updates/new-perspectives-on-the-enigma-of-expanding-antarctic-sea-ice

      This increase has occured despite the hysteria over AGW levels become "catastrophic" over the same time period. You can't cherry pick data, no matter what your cognitive biases keep telling you.

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    3. Eric, you are cherry picking data. We know that while overall atmospheric temperatures are increasing due to the complex nature of the ocean/atmosphere system there will be some places, some times that will cool. In addition, one might expect that in a very cold place as the average temperature increases there might be more snow. The amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold exponentially increases with temperature. So, much of the Antarctic is a desert receiving almost no precipitation. As it warms it might get more. This would not change the overall climate in other parts of the world.

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  11. For myself, I'm much more interested in the energy policy facets of the climate change debate than I am in whatever rise in GMT by 2100 is being predicted this year by mainstream climate scientists. (My own prediction on that score is 2C above pre-industrial by 2100, for whatever that's worth to anyone.)

    The Biden administration hasn't offered anything resembling a cogent plan of action for how to get from here to there in meeting its stated Net Zero targets; i.e., Net Zero by 2035 for power generation and Net Zero for the entire US economy by 2050.

    I would observe that the University of Washington has the staff resources, the technical resources, and the informational resources needed to create such a cogent plan of action through the use of a highly coordinated multi-disciplinary analytical approach.

    I'll say more on this topic later on this week or early next, as I get time. For now, my immediate concern is that if I am to have a truly successful Thanksgiving holiday experience, I must gain at least three pounds by 8 PM Sunday evening.

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  12. So much fun and games with a subject that spans generations to perhaps be proven wrong or right. Ultimately, no one wants a reduction in quality of life/living standards as a result of climate change mitigation. Standards of Living have to be comprehensively maintained or improved or no deal. We will stay with fossil fuels, thank you very much.
    Plus, lots of tactics are self defeating, such as banning IC everything but not upgrading the power grid or even waiting for valid solutions before outlawing the current ones. IC engines are still needed to move freight. Aircraft still require heat engines. Plus we are still all in on sprawl and car dependency, which is the most inefficient as well as wasteful manner to build. Just look at any city that is 70% dedicated to car parking or roadway but still commands such a high land premium as to render almost everything built to be high end. NIMBY kills off nuclear plants or even transmission lines to move electricity where it is needed. So basically the solutions are superfluous, unrealistic or just plain untenable. Humanity is not capable of handling climate change on a preventative scale. All we can do is adapt so in reality the science as well as the toxic politics do not matter. All that our country really cares about is money so unless you can frame climate change mitigation in the terms of "What's in it for me financially", than forget it. The economy is ALWAYS the top political issue for almost everyone. Only the wealthy have the luxury of caring about anything past that.

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    1. Spot On! Many great points here and throughout this comments thread... Refreshing to here the rational voices that "they" are trying to drown out with all the noise driven by panic and fear... The tipping point that I am most concerned with is the one of climate extremists fear induced decisions, that if implemented, will be very difficult to reverse. Ones that will undoubtedly affect the standards of living for future generations and Earth's greatest resource- mankind.

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    2. The only way to get from here to there in achieving Net Zero for the United States is to impose an aggressive anti-carbon plan of action on the nation's economy, one which uses a carrot and stick approach for getting the job done.

      Getting the job done on Biden's schedule means that starting immediately, America must be consuming less energy than we do today, and that the pace of the transition into a Net Zero future must be greatly accelerated.

      For purposes of simplification, let's define what Net Zero should mean here in the United States, using the year 2005 as the carbon emission baseline.

      Within the proposed action plan, the 2035 Net Zero target is defined as a 70% reduction in US carbon emissions from the power generation sector plus a 50% reduction from the industrial and transportation sectors. The 2050 Net Zero target is defined as a 90% reduction in US carbon emissions from the power generation sector and an 80% reduction from the industrial and transportation sectors.

      The carrot of this Net Zero action plan is to guarantee a 12% annual rate of return on every dollar invested in wind, solar, and battery technology; with utility ratepayers supplying all the needed capital up front and continuously through unconstrained charges to their utility bills.

      The stick of this Net Zero action plan is for the Biden administration to declare a climate emergency, to unilaterally impose a scheme of energy rationing on the American economy, and to employ every tool in the federal government's regulatory toolbox to reduce the supply of fossil energy while also greatly increasing its price.

      A carrot and stick action plan like the one described above will precipitate a mad scramble into renewable energy production and deployment. Furthermore, greatly higher prices for all forms of energy, and a corresponding lack of supply, will encourage the massive efforts at energy conservation needed to make any Net Zero action plan work.

      Could we predict a strong political backlash if the Biden administration adopted this kind of Net Zero action plan -- a plan which involves greatly higher prices for energy; and over time, a greatly reduced supply of energy?

      The answer is no. If the outcome of the 2022 mid-term election is any indication, President Biden has nothing to fear politically from imposing a highly coercive and expensive scheme for reaching Net Zero. If he doesn't do it, then he has some other agenda in mind than saving the world from climate change.

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  13. The "climate change" narrative 24/7/365 is indoctrination in order to frighten and agitate other 6 o'clock news watchers in order to institute one world government. They could care less about the environment. All their elites still fly to their gatherings in mega ton carbon spewing jets. Cliff is 100% correct, "An attempt to sow worry and panic, with the motivation to motivate people to "do the right thing." Compliance is the end goal of all Marxists.

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  14. The louder the alarmists yell, the less I listen. Present me with a rational argument that is completely devoid of fear inducing buzz words, backed by peer reviewed science and I'll be more than happy to listen.

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  15. I am just so grateful for the truth-tellers.

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  16. Snow in the forecast for next week. :)

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  17. Prof. Mass, I am curious about the observed minimum temperatures being consistently above the ensemble mean. What causes that?

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  18. Cliff: I have a related question. Supposing AGW were, over the next decade or two, to prove as dangerous as believers imagine. Are there any dramatic actions that humans could take, such as precipitating eruptions at deserted sites, releasing SO2 at high elevations, or even nuclear bombs in the upper atmosphere, that in that worst-case scenario could stave off disaster?

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  19. So basically after the instability (caused by rising temperatures) that military and foreign experts expect over the next forty years (that makes Syria look like a Thanksgiving squabble) we should be able to start reversing things. I guess that is good news for my grand kids (or maybe their grand kids). Sure, much of the world will have suffered, and many of the democracies will have fallen apart, but at least there is a shot at getting things back to the lovely state the world is in now.

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  20. How about we get back to the real reason why we come here.

    What's up with the forecasted cold for next week. Not so much the potential for snow; but how cold, what is the climactic cause, and why is the northwest getting these increasingly large swings from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold; dry, wet, ect. ect. (At least this year)

    Local farmers want and need to know so we can cropplan for the future, protect our crops and animals and inform our employees and customers of the incoming lack of work and local food.

    Thanks Cliff, I appreciate all you do for the local community.

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  21. So uh.... is it going to snow next week or what?

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  22. I think we have already crossed a tipping point. In recent summers the highest coldest parts of Greenland have experienced above freezing temperatures and even alittle bit of rain. This is a problem because Greenland is a frozen desert, it doesn't snow all that much and it doesn't take much of a thaw to melt the meager snowpack. If the top of Greenland is not snow covered year round the ice sheet will melt, it may take hundreds of years but if the climate does not cool Greenland will melt. When the ice sheet melts the ocean will rise 20 to 25 feet which is a big problem for cities like New Orleans, Shanghai and Miami.

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  23. I agree that tipping points are unlikely with respect to absolute temperature rise, heat waves, tropical storms, etc. But I agree with Storm1 that Greenland ice melt is a concern. If enough ice melts to cause, say 10 feet of sea level rise, that would be an extremely destructive result that would not be easily reversible, and thus would qualify as a tipping point. So I'd be interested in Cliff's take on this issue.

    I believe ice sheet melting effect occurs as a very delayed reaction. I read that it took 1,000 years for North America's continental ice sheet to melt. So how much Greenland ice melt is "built in" by the 1C warming we have already experienced? I think that why Storm1 thinks that tipping point has been crossed.

    Greenland ice loss accelerating is Item G on the map Cliff posted. Perhaps Cliff believes that the future rate of Greenland ice loss is predictable and gradual over the next 100-150 years, and thus a sudden loss yielding the feared abrupt 10 feet of sea level rise is not possible. At any rate I'm very interested in Cliff's opinion.

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  24. Uhhh... no. If the 28°C thermocline continues to expand storms get more plentiful and more powerful. If CO2 continues to saturate the ocean, carbonic acid kills the entire food chain. Gradual warming pushes the snow line further up the mountains reducing snowpack and allows invasive species like bark beetles to destroy forests. Currently 125 cubic kilometers of land ice is vanishing each year and increasing. In the 1990s sea level was rising 1.3mm a year, today sea level is rising close to 3.5mm a year. One cataclysmic melting season can see an appreciable percentage of the Greenland or West Antarctic sheets fall into the ocean. This would result in instant and destructive sea level rise and could do thinks like shut down the gulf stream plunging Europe into just crazy weather conditions.

    The "point of no return" isn't a sudden rise in temperature that wipes out civilization, but the little nudge that makes life and commerce damned near impossible to maintain.

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    1. Do you think the oceans are warming?

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    2. Is it possible the shock wave from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets both falling suddenly and simultaneously into the ocean might cause the Cascadia Fault to rupture all along its length, thereby adding a 9.0 Richter Scale Big One to the list of calamities that a rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere can cause?

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    3. Caroline, oceans are warming faster than the air is.

      Beth, no.

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    4. Houston, the oceans are absorbing about 90% of the increased heat from global warming, but the specific heat for water is much higher than for air, and the mass of the oceans is vastly greater than the atmosphere. The oceans are increasing in temperature, but not as fast as the atmosphere.

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    5. Do you think oceans are acidifying?

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  25. Are there not biological tipping points caused by climate change? For example coral reef die offs. Once they all die there is no going back.

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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