27 feedback loops could accelerate climate crisis, warn scientists

Scientists are advising governments to take urgent action, as they have identified 27 global feedback loops which could lock the world into irreversible climate change.

An international collaboration of Oregon State University researchers shared their findings in the One Earth journal and implored policymakers to avert the worst of the climate crisis.

Feedback loops are climate-caused alterations which can trigger a process which causes even warming. For example, a melting Arctic could result in further warming, as sea water absorbs rather than reflects solar radiation.

white and green house near green trees during night time

OSU College of Forestry postdoctoral scholar Christopher Wolf explained: ‘Many of the feedback loops we examined significantly increase warming because of their connection to greenhouse gas emissions. To the best of our knowledge, this is the most extensive list available of climate feedback loops, and not all of them are fully considered in climate models. What’s urgently needed is more research and modeling and an accelerated cutback of emissions.’

The scientists recommends ‘immediate and massive’ emission reductions to minimise short-term warming which is already causing disasters, such as wildfires and coastal flooding.

This could then help to avoid climate tipping points which could result in unavoidable and self-perpetuating climate change.

Both biological feedbacks, such as forest dieback and soil carbon loss, and physical feedbacks, like reduced snow cover and increased Antarctic rainfall, were considered.

Professor William Ripple who also led the study said: ‘Transformative, socially just changes in global energy and transportation, short-lived air pollution, food production, nature preservation and the international economy, together with population policies based on education and equality, are needed to meet these challenges in both the short and long term. It’s too late to fully prevent the pain of climate change, but if we take meaningful steps soon while prioritizing human basic needs and social justice, it could still be possible to limit the harm.’

Ripple and Wolf worked with co-authors from the University of Exeter, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Associates on the research.

They say that even modest warming will heighten the likelihood that the Earth will cross over tipping points which could fundamentally alter the climate system.

‘In the worst case, if amplifying feedbacks are strong enough, the result is likely tragic climate change that’s moved beyond anything humans can control,’ Ripple added. ‘We need a rapid transition toward integrated Earth system science because the climate can only be fully understood by considering the functioning and state of all Earth systems together. This will require large-scale collaboration, and the result would provide better information for policymakers.’

The scientists also identified seven dampening climate feedbacks which act to stabilize the climate system, such as carbon dioxide fertilization where rising CO2 leads to increasing carbon uptake by vegetation. However, the full effects of these seven feedbacks are still unknown.

Photo by Nikolay Maslov


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