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Earth Systems
A thin veneer of atmosphere, soil, and water covers the surface of the planet. That is the envelope supplying most
of the raw material we need to live. Energy from the Sun, with some residual energy still within the planets core,
feeds Earths dynamic systems that cycle materials within the envelope. Earth System scientists are investigating
the energy and material fluxes that determine the systems dynamics to better understand climate change.

Based on the ndings of the rst IPCC assessment, the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated
as an international environmental treaty produced at the United Nations
Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. The treaty is
aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere
at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with
the climate system.
The IPCC produced its second, third, and fourth reports in 1995, 2001,
and 2007 respectively, as well as a number of special reports on standard-
izing methodologies and focusing on particular concerns. The four IPCC
Assessment Reports track scientists growing understanding of Earth
System complexities and present consensus conclusions of possible impli-
cations. The impressive body of analysis produced by collaboration among
thousands of scientists and policy-makers is unrivalled and remains the
nal arbiter and consensus source of agreed scientic or political canon.

A thin veneer of atmos-

This Compendium serves a purpose different from the IPCC assessments.
phere along the arc of INTRODUCTION The questions addressed by the science presented here, simply concern
the planet seen from a
This Compendium presents some of the vanguard science and where the frontiers of Earth System Science are evolving. What has been
high altitude. Source: learned in the last few years? What is exciting the researchers and inspiring
A. Jordan, P. Cullis conceptual advances under discussion and published by research-
and E. Hall/NOAA ers since 2006 that explores the challenge presented by climate them to persist in their tests and experiments, their conceptual explorations?
change. Rapidly developing toolsthat allow fast and accurate What is science telling us now about how climate is changing and why?
readings of environmental conditions, that compile and analyze data series Background
of increasing complexities at unprecedented rates, and that allow insights
Composed of different gases, the atmosphere circulates energy from the
into uxes of energy and material at micro and macro scaleshave ac-
equator, where the Suns radiation arrives most intensely, to the poles
celerated the rate at which vanguard science is being produced.
via weather systems such as cyclones, storms, and weather fronts. One
In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United of the most important circulation systems the atmosphere supports is
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental the hydrologic cycle: Water evaporates from seas, lakes, rivers, soils,
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a scientic body to evaluate the risk ice (sublimation), and plants (evapotranspiration) and moves through
of climate change and whether it could be caused by human activity. the atmosphere to precipitate as rain or snowthe precipitation that
falls during monsoons and other events forms streams, rivers, lakes,
Figure 1.1: The greenhouse effect permeating into soils and then into aquifers and groundwater. Plants send
out roots to tap water and minerals in soils and use the Suns energy to
photosynthesize and grow. Snow solidies into ice sheets and glaciers and
5 !1,%+!"#$%$#&'#('!)%'+% P !1,%!<%(-,%')<$#$,&%
O G $,<",0(,&%:9%(-,% $#&'#('!)%*#++,+% in spring ice and snow melt to feed the streams and rivers that provide
#(1!+*-,$,%#)&%,#$(-;+% (-$!./-%(-,%
E !"#$%$#&'#('!)%*#++,+% +.$<#0, #(1!+*-,$,%#)&%'+%
the water for forests and meadows and elds. Fresh water is delivered to
(-$!./-%(-,%0",#$% D.(/!')/%+!"#$% "!+(%')%+*#0, oceans creating deltaic and coastal environments that support brackish
#(1!+*-,$,2 $#&'#('!)4 G,(%!.(/!')/%')<$#$,&%
3)0!1')/%+!"#$% EF5%7#((%*,$%18 $#&'#('!)4 water ecosystems such as tidal ats and mangrove forests.
$#&'#('!)4 86F%7#((%*,$%18
D O L %
Climate on Earth is affected by a myriad of drivers that operate over weeks
N M and over geological eras. Long-term changes in average temperature and
R !1,%!<%(-,%')<$#$,&%$#&'#('!)%'+%#:+!$:,&% surface cover are dependent on orbital forcing, freshwater pulses, volcanic
8 G,(%')0!1')/%+!"#$% 1!",0.",+2%C-,%&'$,0(%,<<,0(%'+%(-,%=#$1')/% activity, variations in solar output, and the relative positions of continents
and oceans, among other factors. Within the atmosphere, proportions of
#)&%')<$#$,&%$#&'#('!)%'+% gases affect how much solar radiation reaches the Earths surface to be
,1'((,&%#/#') absorbed and stored as heat. The composition of the atmosphere also
6 !"#$%,),$/9%'+%#:+!$:,&%
affects how much of that heat, as longwave radiation from the Earths
"!)/=#>,%?')<$#$,&@%$#&'#('!)% surface, is then lost again into space, and how much is retained to circulate
L H M C K through Earth Systems.
Water vapour, which passes through the atmosphere in a matter of days or
Solar radiation is absorbed by the Earths surface, causing the Earth to warm and to emit
weeks, and other aerosols, can form clouds and affect radiation transfers
infrared radiation. The greenhouse gases then trap the infrared radiation, warming the
atmosphere. Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2002 in feedback systems. Aerosols have a strong inuence on radiation uxes,


as they can either block or enhance delivery of shortwave radiation or Figure 1.3: Surface temperature anomalies relative to 19511980 from surface
escape of longwave radiation. Other components of the atmosphere air measurements at meteorological stations and ship and satellite SST
can inuence how much radiation reaches the Earths surface and how measurements
much escapes. Those gases that remain in the atmosphere for decades
and longer and that inhibit the escape of longwave radiation are called
greenhouse gases (GHGs).
One of the most common GHGs is carbon dioxide, an essential link be-
tween plants and animals. Animals produce carbon dioxide and exhale
it, while plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, store it
within their material structures, and then release it when they respire.
Plant material decomposes as bacteria and other organisms consume
the mass, releasing more carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. In
the absence of oxygen, bacteria produce methane, the second most
common GHG. Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, in the mid
18th century, intense and inefcient burning of wood, charcoal, coal,
oil, and gas, accompanied by massive land use change, has resulted in
increased concentrations of GHGs in the Earths atmosphere. The use
of articial fertilizers, made possible by techniques developed in the
late 19th century, has led to practices resulting in releases of nitrous
oxide, another GHG, into air. Since the 1920s, industrial activities have
applied a number of manmade carbon compounds for refrigeration, re Source: Hansen et al. 2006
suppression, and other purposes some of which have been found to be established in the Earth Sciences since IGY. Some of the
very powerful GHGs (UNEP 2009). most intriguing information described the uctuations of ice sheets across
the northern hemisphere for the previous 1.5 to 2.5 million years. Those
Climate and Earth Systems uctuations or pulses of ice coverage could last for hundreds of thou-
In 1957 and 1958, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) produced sands of years, according to measurements of elemental isotope ratios
a coordinated effort to ll gaps in scientic understanding of the Earth of compounds trapped in coral reefs, ocean sediments, and ice cores.
using innovative technologies such as rockets, radar, and comput- At the same time the atmospheric evidence of the ice pulses was being
ers (NOAA-ESRL 2008). Among the many observations and research documented, examination of forcing from orbital variations suggested
programmes that originated from IGY, measurements of the gases that the Earth could be ending the interglacial period during which human
comprise the Earths atmosphereand the uctuations in their propor- civilization had ourished. But correlations between the trends of carbon
tionsprovided new insights to the eld of study that is now known as dioxide in the atmosphere and the average global temperature appeared
Earth System Science. to be very strong: Over a 1000-year period, a fairly level trend seemed to
Measurements of carbon dioxide taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in start a sharp rise since the late 1800s. Was the climate changingand,
Hawaii revealed that the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if so, how? And could human activity possibly have anything to do with
increases during the northern hemisphere autumn and winter and
decreases in spring and summer. This cycle tracked the varying rates
of plant photosynthesis during the year. The seasons of the northern Box 1.1: Formalizing Earth System Science
hemisphere dominate this cycle because of the overwhelming amount
In 2001, scientists from around the world gathered in Amsterdam to formally estab-
of land in that hemisphere compared to the vast ocean coverage in the
lish an interdisciplinary eld of study called Earth System Science. The Amsterdam
south. As observations continued for years and then decades, scientists Declaration on Global Change denes the parameters:
realized that while the annual variations went up and down, the overall
trend of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was going up (Keeling and 1) The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of
Whorf 2005). physical, chemical, biological, and human components.

Debates among scientists continued, as more and more data were 2) Human activities are signicantly inuencing Earths environment in many ways
collected and information was extracted from many of the programmes in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
3) Global change cannot be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm.
Figure 1.2: Atmospheric CO2: Mauna Loa measurements
4) Earth System dynamics are characterized by critical thresholds and abrupt
5) Human activities could inadvertently trigger such changes with severe conse-
quences for Earths environment and inhabitants.
6) In terms of some key environmental parameters, the Earth System has moved
well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million
years at least.
7) An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System
management are urgently needed.
Source: Earth System Science Partnership 2001

Source: Keeling et al. 2009


it? To answer such questions, researchers needed to use innovative The Global Climate Observing System aims to provide comprehensive
approaches working with interdisciplinary teams that could incorporate information on the total climate system through the collection of data on
data, information, and knowledge from many sources. long-term climate change. The Global Ocean Observing System implements
observation programmes for the oceans and coastal areas, respective
Demand for innovative approaches came from many directions, not the
to ve programme areas: Climate Change and Variability, Marine Living
least from multinational environmental agreements. The UNFCCCs Ar-
Resources, Oceanographic Data Services, the Coastal Zone, and Health
ticle2 commits signatory nations to stabilizing greenhouse gas con-
of the Oceans (GCOS 2009). The Global Terrestrial Observing System
centrations at levels that prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference
develops and networks observations of longterm changes in land quality,
with the climate system. This stabilization is to be achieved within a
availability of freshwater resources, pollution and toxicity, loss of biodiversity,
timeframe that is sufcient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to
and climate change (GTOS 2009). Together, these systems provide vital
climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and
data on the Earth System and climate change.
to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
The debate about what is dangerous anthropogenic interference and Satellite capabilities
what is a sufcient timeframe has continued since the convention There are at least eight Earth observing satellite projects in operation
came into force in 1994. The scientic interdisciplinary approach, that that are formally part of the UN-managed programme. In addition, many
has developed to study the Earth as a dynamic meta-system, partly nations operate weather satellites and commercial interests have also
in response to these and other questions about Global Environmental begun to contribute to the monitoring of the planet and its environment.
Change, is Earth System Science. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) is one example
HOW EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE WORKS of how advances in satellite technology are dramatically improving our
understanding of Earths natural systems and the ways in which they are
Earth System scientists incorporate data from a global network of over
changing. The GRACE project utilizes two identical spacecrafts ying in
11,000 ground stations that provide daily records of temperatures,
tandem approximately 220 kilometres apart in a polar orbit 500 kilometres
precipitation, barometric pressure, and atmospheric concentrations of
above the Earth. As the twin satellites y in formation over Earth, the speed
various compounds into their analyses of how the Earth System works
of each and the distance between them are constantly communicated
(WMO 2009). These are records of the Essential Climate Variables. Data
via a microwave interferometer ranging instrument (NASA JPL 2009). As
and information also emerge from specically dened research projects
the gravitational eld below the satellites changes, correlating to changes
designed to answer questions about the nature and the rates of change
in mass and topography, the orbital motion of each satellite is changed,
in natural systems.
and this is measured in response to variations in the pull of gravity. From
Interpretation of data from research projects, ground stations, ocean this, the surface mass uctuations in the Earths gravitational eld can be
monitoring, and satellite observation systems is a critical contribution to determined. The satellite pair completes a full Earth orbit every 30 days,
our understanding of changes in the climate system and to the identica- allowing researchers to build a monthly picture of the Earths gravitational
tion of the most effective and efcient response options to these changes eld and to track variations and trends in gravitational uxes of water and
(WMO 2009). ice, as well as land mass.
Recent scientic and technological developments allow for more accurate The gravity variations that GRACE detects include those related to surface
modelling of climate change and its impacts. At the same time, looking into and deep currents in the ocean, runoff and groundwater storage in land
the past and studying historical changes in climate can help us to make masses, exchanges between ice sheets or glaciers and the oceans, and
more sense of the present and to better predict the future. variations of mass within the Earth, such as those associated with tectonic
and volcanic processes (Rodell et al. 2009). The combination of advanced
Global observing systems gravity models with ocean height measurements from satellite altimeters
In the 1980s, several UN agencies recognized the need for a comprehen- and data from the GRACE satellites enables a far more detailed study of
sive, long-term, global monitoring programme to observe phenomena re- global ocean circulation than previously possible.
lated to climate change. Today, three inter-related global observing systems
to monitor the Earths environment are organized by these UN agencies Ocean monitoring
in cooperation with the scientic community and national governments. Earths oceans play an integral role in the global climate system. Regular
scanning of the ocean surface is vital to building a database of ocean
surface topography that can help predict short-term changes in weather
and longer term patterns of climate. Historically, ships navigating the
worlds oceans have gathered observations of this nature, and so the
resulting data has been restricted to main shipping routes.
Since 2000, the ship-based observations are being complemented by more
precise information from an array of Argo ocean buoys, which provide
accurate, reliable oceanographic data to monitor currents, the oceans
transport of heat and fresh water around the globe, and sea-level rise.
The Argo system collects high-quality temperature and salinity proles
from the upper 2,000 metres of the ice-free global oceansthe layer that
exchanges heat, chemicals, and moisture most readily with the terrestrial
and atmospheric environments (NASA JPL 2009).
The battery-powered, autonomous oats are released to drift at a depth
where they are stabilized by being neutrally buoyant. They are programmed
to surface at typically ten-day intervals by pumping uid into an external
The twinned GRACE satellites bring new dimensions to Earth observations. bladder and rising to the surface over a period of about six hours, measuring
Source: NASA 2006a temperature and salinity along the way. These data are then transmitted


from the surface to satellites, which also record the position of the buoys, the importance of this timescale to infrastructure planners, water resource
before they deate and sink to drift until the cycle is repeated (UCSD 2009). managers, and other stakeholders (Meehl et al. 2009).
The rst Argo oats were deployed in 2000 and the array was complete Several methods have been proposed for initializing global coupled-climate
in 2007, comprising over 3,300 oats to date. The array is made up of 23 models for decadal predictions, all of which involve global time-evolving
different countries contributions that range from a single oat to much and three-dimensional ocean data, including temperature and salinity.
larger deployments (NASA JPL 2008). The Argo system has become a major An experimental framework to address decadal predictions has been
component of the ocean observing system and is now the main source of incorporated into the most recent phase of the ongoing coupled model
data on subsurface temperature and salinity uctuations in oceanscriti- intercomparison project, some of which will be assessed for the use in
cally important factors in understanding global climate change. the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The experimental framework will

Geological research
Table 1.1: Cause and relative magnitudes of the major anthropogenic and natural influ-
Paleoclimate research has both theoretical and applied scientic objec- ences on the climate over the period 1750-2007
tives. Evidence of past climates helps us to more fully understand the Resulting Persist- Resulting
evolution of the Earths atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and cryosphere. climate ence of climate
At the same time, paleoclimate studies help us to quantify properties forcing the influ- forcing
(W/m2) ence after (W/m2) up-
of Earths climate, including the forces that drive climate change and Influence on solar from sources date from
the sensitivity of the Earths climate to those forces. When scientists and/or infrared Primary source of the 1750 to are IPCC AR4
radiation influence 2000 reduced (2007)
investigate causes or complex processes in the present and future,
they may nd evidence in the past that helps them in mapping out the Increased presence Mainly a result of water vapor
of contrails and cirrus emissions from aircraft +0.02 Days +0.02
complexities. clouds

For instance, about 55 million years ago an event known as the Paleocene- Increase in the concen- Emissions from fossil fuel
Days to
trations of black soot combustion and biomass +0.4 +0.4
Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred. This was an episode of rapid and weeks
and other aerosols burning
intense warming lasting less than 100,000 years (Eldrett et al. 2009).
Increase in the loading Mainly a result of coal
Scientists have suggested that methane released by warming and rising Days to
of sulphate and other combustion -0.9 -0.5
sea levels on continental shelves may have contributed to this and other reflective aerosols
similar events displayed in the geologic record (Schmidt and Shindell 2003, Cloud-forming effects Mainly due to emissions from
Days to
Archer 2007). Another paleoclimatic analogue comes from the 1980s and of an increased loading fossil fuel combustion and -0.7 -0.7
of atmospheric particles biomass burning
1990s research into freshwater pulses introduced to the North Atlantic
Increased concentra- Mainly from wind lofting from
between 8,000 and 15,000 years ago by the deteriorating Laurentide tions of mineral dust cleared areas of land
-0.6 to Days to -0.6 to
+0.4 weeks +0.4
Ice Sheetwork that stimulated much of the basis for todays study of aerosols
the formation of the North Atlantic Deepwater Conveyer (Broecker et al. Increase in the atmos- Emissions from rice agriculture,
1989, Clark et al. 2002). These studies inform us about the possibilities pheric CH4 concentra- ruminants, energy production, +0.5 Decades +0.07
tion biomass burning, and landlls
and implications of feedbacks and thresholds that could be recreated
under modern, anthropogenically initiated conditions. Decrease in the Mainly from chemical reac-
concentrations of tions caused by halocarbon
stratospheric ozone emissions, aggravated by
Modelling stratospheric cooling caused -0.15 Decades -0.05
Models are fundamental tools for understanding climate variations, allowing by increasing atmospheric
concentrations of greenhouse
the synthesis of relevant atmospheric, oceanographic, cryospheric and gases
land-surface data, and providing predictions of natural and anthropogenic
Increased surface Mainly a result of clearing Decades to
climate change. Models are tested by their success at hindcasting the -0.2 -0.2
reflectivity vegetation from land areas centuries
conditions revealed by paleoclimate studies. Once they have established Increase in the atmos- Emissions from agriculture
their ability to accurately represent past conditions, models are then rened pheric N2O concentra- cattle and feedlots, industry, +0.15 Centuries +0.15
for projecting trends into the future. tion and biomass burning
Increase in the atmos- Emissions from fossil fuel com-
In 2008, the World Climate Research Program and the World Weather Centuries
pheric CO2 concentra- bustion, deforestation, etc. +1.5 +1.66
and longer
Research Programme convened a group of experts to review the current tion
state of modelling, and to suggest a strategy for seamless prediction Increase in the concen- Emissions from refrigeration, Centuries
of weather and climate, from days to centuries. A major conclusion of trations of atmospheric foam, industry, re protection, and longer,
halocarbons and agriculture
even out to +0.3
the group was that projections from the current generation of climate millennia
models were insufcient in providing accurate and reliable predictions of Total of human-induced factors (using central
regional climate change, including the statistics of extreme events and estimates) +1.2 +1.6
high impact weather, which are required for regional and local adaptation
strategies. A new modelling system has been designed that predicts both Natural influences on radiative forcing
internal variability and externally forced changes, and forecasts surface Solar radiation Natural variation in solar inten-
+0.12 In-
temperature with substantially improved skill throughout a decade, globally incident at the top sity, with possible cycles from +0.3 increase
crease since
of atmosphere 11 years to several centuries, since lower- A few
and in many regions (WMO 2009). lower-than-
and changes in the Earths than-average years
average value
orbital parameters over tens of value in 1750
in 1750
Decadal prediction thousands of years
A new eld of study, decadal prediction, is emerging in Earth System Decrease in Natural event, occuring
near 0 (typi- A few near 0 (typi-
solar radiation intermittently
Science. Decadal prediction focuses between seasonal or inter-annual reaching the lower
cal range is years to cal range is
forecasting and longer term climate change projections, and explores from about 0 dec- from about 0
atmosphere due to
to -4) ades to -4)
time-evolving, regional climate conditions over the next 10 to 30 years. volcanic eruptions
Numerous assessments of climate information user needs have identied Source: Adapted from SEG 2007, Solomon et al. 2007, Metz et al. 2007


Figure 1.4: Fossil fuel emissions: Actual vs IPCC scenarios However, the projections and scenarios that dene these unavoidable
results may in some cases underestimate the actual impacts (Smith et al.
2009). Created in the 1990s, these scenarios all assumed that political
will or other phenomena would have brought about the reduction in GHG
emissions by this point in the 21st century.
In fact, CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning and industrial processes
have been accelerating at a global scale, with their growth rate increasing
from 1.1 per cent per year for 19901999 to 3.5 per cent per year for
20002007. The emissions growth rate since 2000 was greater than for
the most fossil-fuel intensive of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change emissions scenarios developed in the late 1990s. Global emis-
sions growth since 2000 has been driven by growing populations and
per capita gross domestic product. Nearly constant or slightly increasing
trends in the carbon intensity of energy have been recently observed in
both developed and developing regions due to increasing reliance on coal.
No region is substantially decarbonizing its energy supply. The emission
growth rates are highest in rapidly developing economies, particularly
China. Together, the developing and least-developed economies80 per
Anthropogenic emis- cent of the worlds populationaccounted for 73 per cent of the global
sions from fossil fuels likely guide this emerging eld over the next ve years (WMO growth in 2004 emissions, but only 41 per cent of total global emissions
increased by 38 per cent
2009, Meehl et al. 2009). and only 23 per cent of cumulative emissions since 1750 (Raupach et
from the reference year
1990. The growth rate al. 2007, Canadell and Raupach 2009).
of emissions was 3.5
These are the main tools at scientists disposal for monitoring,
per cent per year for the analyzing, and understanding the immense complexities of Earth Implications
period 2000-2007, an al- Systems. Modern information and communication technologies Concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are increasing rapidly because of two
most four-fold increase have revolutionized modern science within the last two decades.
from 0.9 per cent per
processes. Firstly, the growth of the world economy in the early 2000s,
year in 1990-1999. The combined with an increase in its carbon intensity, has led to rapid growth
actual emissions growth in fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Comparing the 1990s with 20002006,
rate for 2000-2007 ex- As we have seen, these new dimensions of understanding have
the emissions growth rate increased from 1.3 per cent to 3.3 per cent
ceeded the highest fore- revealed disturbing trends. Earth System scientists are becoming
cast growth rates for the per year. The second process is indicated by increasing evidence of a
more concerned about dangerous anthropogenic interference
decade 2000-2010 in decline in the efciency of CO2 sinks in oceans and on land in absorbing
the emissions scenarios and concepts like irreversibility. They are using the term com-
anthropogenic emissions. The decline in sink efciency is consistent
of the IPCC Special mitted to dene the natural responses of the Earths systems to
Report on Emissions
with results of climatecarbon cycle models, but the magnitude of the
the increased GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and to the
Scenarios (SRES). This observed signal appears larger than that estimated by the models. All of
resulting increase in radiative forcing that brings higher global
makes current trends in these changes characterize a carbon cycle that is generating stronger-
emissions higher than mean temperatures. Manifestations of these responses may
than-expected and sooner-than-expected climate forcing (Canadell et al.
the worst case IPCC- be delayed, but once initiated they are all too likely irreversible.
SRES scenario. The 2007, Le Qur et al. 2007).
shaded area indicates Already we are committed to ocean acidication that will dam-
the uncertainties around
The climate forcing arriving sooner-than-expected includes faster sea-
age or destroy coral reefs and the many species of marine life
the projections. Source: level rise, ocean acidication, melting of Arctic sea-ice cover, warming
that inhabit or depend upon the ecosystem services of the reefs.
Raupach et al. 2007 of polar land masses, freshening in ocean currents, and shifts in circula-
Already we are committed to sea-level rise (SLR) over the tion patterns in the atmosphere and the oceans (Rahmstorf et al. 2009,
next millennium. Guinotte et al. 2008, Stroeve et al. 2008, McPhee et al. 2009, Seidel et
al. 2008, MacDonald et al. 2008, Bning et al. 2008, Oldenborgh et al.
Already we are committed to tropical and temperate mountain glacier
2008, Karl et al. 2009).
loss that will disrupt irrigation systems and hydroelectric installations,
as well as alter the socio-economic and cultural lives of perhaps 20-25 Scientic ndings point to the possibility of abrupt changes in the Earth
per cent of the human population. System (Zachos et al. 1993, Manabe and Stouffer 1995, Severinghaus
et al. 1998, Severinghaus and Brook 1999, Clark et al. 2002, Alley et al.
Already we are committed to shifts in the hydrologic cycle that may
2003, Clark and Weaver 2008, Severinghaus et al. 2009, Weaver et al.
result in the disappearance of regional climates with associated eco-
2008). Acceptance of such a possibility has led to a number of studies
system disruption and species extinction as drylands shift poleward
that consider the behaviour of Earth Systems within that context. Resist-
with the expansion of the intertropical convergence zone and bordering
ing consideration of catastrophic events to explain physical evidence
subtropical climates.
is a residual effect from the false dichotomy in early Earth Science that
Projections of these consequences from increased GHG concentrations resulted in catastrophist vs. uniformitarian contention in the 19th and
in the atmosphere extend over this century and through this millennium. earlier 20th centuries (Baker 1998). Today, abrupt change, thresholds,
The century timeframe affects many of those alive todayand certainly and irreversibility have come to the forefront in many analyses that have
their children and grandchildren. The millennium timescale affects the been published since 2007, reecting research ndings from the last
development of our civilization: We still utilize canals, roads, and irrigation three decades.
systems that were planned and constructed more than two millennia ago,
In early 2008, a team of scientists published the rst detailed investigation
and we still farm lands that were claimed from the ocean a thousand years
of vulnerable Earth System components that could contain tipping points.
ago. When we talk about a millennium we are talking about the civilization
The team used the term tipping element for these vulnerable systems
we have built (Lenton et al. 2008).
and accepted a denition for tipping point as ...a critical threshold at


which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development Scientists hope to establish early warning systems to detect when possible
of a system... (Lenton et al. 2008). They examined nine of these elements tipping elements become unstable. Detection of slowing down of estab-
and assigned transition times to emphasize policy relevance. They also lished variability before abrupt climate changes of the past offers a possible
suggested the average global temperature increase that approaches a clue about tipping elements, thresholds (Dakos et al. 2008). The goal of
critical value within each tipping element. The study warned against a early warning may be complicated by the cumulative effects the different
false sense of security delivered by projections of smooth transitions of Earth Systems have on each other, given the complex interactions among
climate change. Instead, too many critical thresholds could be crossed tipping elements at multiple scales and under various circumstances.
within the 21st century because of the changing climate.
Conceptually, thresholds and tipping elements can be grasped, but the
time-frames of the effects and the irreversibility of crossing such margins
remain uncertain and need to be considered carefully. With the help of
models, scientists have begun to estimate the conditions under which
irreversible thresholds in the Earth System might be exceeded.
Box 1.2: Tipping elements
There are nine tipping elements considered as Earth System For example, focusing on two potentially irreversible consequences
components vulnerable to possible abrupt change. The time in Earth Systems, dry-season rainfall reductions in some regions and
frames and threshold temperature increases presented here ongoing sea-level rise, researchers used models to look at the systems
will likely be modied as new data and information track char- response to increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations (Solomon et
acteristics and rates of change: al. 2009). Based on an assumption that CO2 will peak between 450 and
600 parts per million (ppm) in the next century, they project a 10 per
Indian summer monsoonThe regional atmospheric brown cent increase in aridity, dominating the dry seasons in southern Africa,
cloud is one of the many climate change-related factors that eastern South America, and southwestern North America. An increase in
could disrupt the monsoon. Possible time-frame: one year; dry season aridity approaching 20 per cent would dominate in western
temperature increase: unknown. Australia, northern Africa, and southern Europe. All these regions would
Sahara and West African monsoonSmall changes to the experience wet-season precipitation somewhat lower or similar to current
monsoon have triggered abrupt wetting and drying of the Sahara conditions, while southeast Asia would experience up to 5 per cent wetter
in the past. Some models suggest an abrupt return to wet times. rainy seasons and 10 per cent more arid dry seasons.
Possible time-frame: 10 years; temperature increase: 3-5C. The model experiments show that a climate scenario in which CO 2
Arctic summer sea-iceAs sea-ice melts, it exposes darker concentrations exceed 600 ppm in the 21st century might lead to a rise
ocean, which absorbs more heat than ice does, causing further in the global average sea level of at least 0.4 to 1.0 metres, whereas
warming. Possible time-frame: 10 years; temperature increase: a scenario with a peak concentration of 1000 ppm causes a sea-level
0.2-2C. rise of around 1.9 metres (Solomon et al. 2009). These gures only
account for the thermal expansion of the sea. In these projections, a
Amazon rainforestLosing critical mass of the rainforest is complete loss of glaciers and small ice caps within the next ve cen-
likely to reduce internal hydrological cycling, triggering further turies would add 0.2-0.7 metres to sea levels. While the researchers
dieback. Possible time-frame: 50 years; temperature increase: did not calculate contributions from the West Antarctic, East Antarctic,
3-4C. or Greenland Ice Sheets, they do suggest that even a partial loss from
Boreal forestsLonger growing seasons and dry periods those ice sheets could add several meters or more to these values
increase vulnerability to res and pests. Possible time-frame: (Solomon et al. 2009).
50 years; temperature increase: 3-5C.
Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulationRegional ice In the IPCCs Third Assessment Report (TAR) scientists created an im-
melt will freshen North Atlantic water. This could shut down age to represent the possible risks associated with increases in global
the ocean circulation system, including the Gulf Stream, which mean temperature (GMT) and explained particular reasons for concern.
is driven by the sinking of dense saline water in this region. An updated image was not presented in the AR4 Synthesis Report, but
Possible time-frame: 100 years; temperature increase: 3-5C. the researchers who updated it published their ndings in peer-reviewed
El Nio Southern Oscillation (ENSO)El Nio already literature (Smith et al. 2009).
switches on and off regularly. Climate change models suggest The ve reasons for concern cover risks to unique and threatened
ENSO will enter a near-permanent switch-on. Possible time- systems, risk of extreme weather events, distribution of impacts, ag-
frame: 100 years; temperature increase: 3-6C. gregate damages, and the risks of large-scale discontinuities. The basis
Greenland Ice SheetAs ice melts, the height of surface ice for choosing these reasons for concern are the magnitude, the timing,
decreases, so the surface is exposed to warmer temperatures the persistence and reversibility, the distribution, and the likelihood of
at lower altitudes which accelerates melting that could lead to the impacts, as well as the potential for adaptation. The reasons for
ice-sheet break up. Possible time-frame: 300 years; temperature concern are analysed over temperature increases ranging from 0-5
increase: 1-2C. degrees Celsius and assigned values represented by the intensity of
colours running from white as no threat or risk, to yellow as some to
West Antarctic Ice SheetThe ice sheets are frozen to moderate risk, and nally to deep red as high risk or very negative ef-
submarine mountains, so there is high potential for sudden fects. In their 2008 update, the authors re-examined each of the reasons
release and collapse as oceans warm. Possible time-frame: for concern and re-assigned colours and intensity from the additional
300 years; temperature increase: 3-5C. information, as appropriate.
Source: Lenton et al. 2008 The shifting of risk transitions from 2000 to 2008 is based on an as-
sessment of strengthened observations of impacts already occurring


Figure 1.5: Burning embers: Updated reasons for concern

Climate change consequences are plotted against increases in degrees Celsius global mean temperature after 1990. Each column corresponds
to a specific reason for concern and represents additional outcomes associated with increasing global mean temperature. Source: Smith et al.

because of warming to date; better understanding and greater condence risks for all of the concerns are at lower GMT increases above 1990
in the likelihood of climatic events and the magnitude of impacts and compared with the location of the transitions in the TAR.
risks associated with increases in GMT; more precise identication of
In addition, for distribution of impacts, aggregate impacts, and large-scale
particularly affected sectors, groups, and regions; and growing evidence
discontinuities, the transition from no or little risk to moderately signicant
that even modest increases in GMT above 1990 levels could commit
risk occurs at a smaller increase in GMT. The transition from no or little
the climate system to the risk of very large impacts over many centuries
risk to moderately signicant risk in the unique and threatened systems
or even millennia.
and extreme events concerns occurs at a lower increase in GMT because
Smaller increases in GMT are now estimated to lead to signicant or there are more and stronger observations of climate change impacts.
substantial consequences in the framework of the ve reasons for concern. The temperature range of moderately signicant risks to substantial
The transitions from moderately signicant risks to substantial or severe or severe risks for large-scale discontinuities is now much wider than
the 2001 estimates in the TAR. In general, the gure illustrates that the
Figure 1.6: Probability distribution for the committed warming by GHGs between
temperatures risking dangerous anthropogenic interference are very
1750 and 2005. Shown are climate tipping elements and the temperature much within range (Smith et al. 2009).
threshold range
The problem of avoiding the climate change thresholds before us calls
for innovative and perhaps even unorthodox approaches, incorporating
concepts such as tipping elements and cumulative effects in our risk as-
sessments. As well, minimizing the importance of what we cannot quantify
while focusing on parameters that are already well constrained should
be avoided. Development of tools to help us comprehend the scale and
duration of the climate changes we face, and the commiments we have
already made, can only help in adopting optimal management strategies.
One of the most difcult additional factors to include accurately in estimates
of radiative forcing at global, regional, and local scales are the effects of
aerosolsparticles that absorb solar radiation and particles that reect
solar radiation. To complicate matters, the same size particles may do either
at different heights within the atmosphere. Aerosol particles come from dust
picked up by wind and from a myriad of anthropogenic sources produced
when people burn fuel, use diesel engines, and clear forests. The aerosols
that reect radiation are more common than those that absorb and they
serve as a mask that prevents the full effect of GHG radiative forcing to
heat the Earth. These aerosols form atmospheric brown clouds at height
Source: Ramanathan and Feng 2008


and cause health problems from their pollution at the Earths surface. As As outlined in Systems Management (Chapter Five), some positive ideas
they are addressed because of concerns about ground-level pollution, are emerging. However, they require immediate decisions that could take
their climate change masking function will dwindle and temperatures will effect within the next few years (Ramanathan and Feng 2008, Schellnhuber
increase (Seinfeld 2008, Ramanathan and Carmichael 2008, Cox et al. 2008, Mignon et al. 2008, Moore and MacCracken 2009, Elzen and Hhne
2008, Shindell and Faluvegi 2009, Hill et al. 2009, Paytan et al. 2009). 2008, Meinshausen et al. 2009, Vaughan et al. 2009). These approaches
and schemes require decisions about differentiated responsibilities and
With estimates of 1-5 degrees Celsius as the range of GMT increase
technology transfers. They require leadership and cooperation; tolerance,
over 1750 levels as the threshold for tipping elements, and 0-5 degrees
transparency, and honesty.
Celsius over 1990 levels as reasons for concern (Figure 1.5), some
researchers are realizing that we have already committed ourselves to Perhaps experiences in everyday life have led us to believe that slow
signicant environmental changes (Lenton et al. 2008, Smith et al. 2009, processes such as climate changes pose small risks, on the assumption
Ramanathan and Feng 2008). The observed increase in GHG concentration that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and reverse
since 1750 has most likely committed the world to a warming of 1.4-4.3 any harm within a few years or decades.
degrees Celsius above pre-industrial surface temperatures. According to
This assumption is incorrect for carbon dioxide emissions due to the
one study, the equilibrium warming above pre-industrial temperatures that
longevity of their effects in the atmosphere and because of ocean warming
the world will observe is 2.4 degrees Celsiuseven if GHG concentra-
(Lenton et al. 2008, Solomon et al. 2009). Irreversible climate changes due
tions had been xed at their 2005 concentration levels and without any
to carbon dioxide emissions have already taken place. Continuing carbon
other anthropogenic forcing such as the cooling effect of aerosols. The
dioxide emissions in the future means further irreversible effects on the
range of 1.4 to 4.3 degrees Celsius in the committed warming overlaps
planet, with attendant long legacies for choices made by contemporary
and surpasses the currently perceived threshold range of 1-3 degrees
society (Ramanathan and Feng 2008, Eby et al. 2009).
Celsius for dangerous anthropogenic interference with many of the same
climate-tipping elements such as the summer Arctic sea-ice, Himalayan Applying discount rates to future costs with the assumption that more
glaciers, and the Greenland Ice Sheet (Ramanathan and Feng 2008). efcient climate mitigation can occur in a future world that is wealthier
than ours ignores the irreversibility of the effects as well as the devastat-
Researchers suggest that 0.6 degrees Celsius of the warming we com-
ing consequences they will have on the wealth of future generations.
mitted to before 2005 has been realized so far. Most of the rest of the
We have already committed our civilization to considerable deciencies
1.6 degrees Celsius total we have committed to will develop in the next
in the integrity of Earth Systems. These dangers pose substantial chal-
50 years and on through the 21st century. The accompanying sea-level
lenges to humanity and nature, with a magnitude that is directly linked
rise can continue for more than several centuries. Lastly, even the most
to the management practices we choose to retreat from further tipping
aggressive CO2 mitigation steps as envisioned now can only limit further
points and irreversible changes from GHG emissions (Lenton et al. 2008,
additions to the committed warming, but not reduce the already committed
Solomon et al. 2009).
GHGs warming of 2.4 degrees Celsius (Ramanathan and Feng 2008).

Where the river meets the sea on the Corcovado Pacific Coast, Costa Rica, creating one of many estuaries. These important estuary ecosys-
tems create a rich and dynamic system that filters water, nurtures marine life, and provides coastal protection. Source: Biosphoto/Michel &
Christine Denis-Huot