IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report

3.4 Risk of abrupt or irreversible changes

Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change. {WGII 12.6, 19.3, 19.4, SPM}

Abrupt climate change on decadal time scales is normally thought of as involving ocean circulation changes. In addition on longer time scales, ice sheet and ecosystem changes may also play a role. If a large-scale abrupt climate change were to occur, its impact could be quite high (see Topic 5.2). {WGI 8.7, 10.3, 10.7; WGII 4.4, 19.3}

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land and/or the thermal expansion of seawater over very long time scales could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Current models project that such changes would occur over very long time scales (millennial) if a global temperature increase of 1.9 to 4.6°C (relative to pre-industrial) were to be sustained. Rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. {SYR 3.2.3; WGI 6.4, 10.7; WGII 19.3, SPM}

Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts. There is medium confidence that approximately 20 to 30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5 to 2.5°C (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40 to 70% of species assessed) around the globe. {WGII 4.4, Figure SPM.2}

Based on current model simulations, it is very likely that the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the Atlantic Ocean will slow down during the 21st century; nevertheless temperatures in the region are projected to increase. It is very unlikely that the MOC will undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21stcentury. Longer-term changes in the MOC cannot be assessed with confidence. {WGI 10.3, 10.7; WGII Figure, Table TS.5, SPM.2}

Impacts of large-scale and persistent changes in the MOC are likely to include changes in marine ecosystem productivity, fisheries, ocean CO2 uptake, oceanic oxygen concentrations and terrestrial vegetation. Changes in terrestrial and ocean CO2 uptake may feed back on the climate system. {WGII 12.6, 19.3, Figure SPM.2}