IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

FAQ 10.2 How Likely are Major or Abrupt Climate Changes, such as Loss of Ice Sheets or Changes in Global Ocean Circulation? 

Frequently Asked Question 10.2

How Likely are Major or Abrupt Climate Changes, such as Loss of Ice Sheets or Changes in Global Ocean Circulation?

Abrupt climate changes, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the rapid loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet or large-scale changes of ocean circulation systems, are not considered likely to occur in the 21st century, based on currently available model results. However, the occurrence of such changes becomes increasingly more likely as the perturbation of the climate system progresses.

Physical, chemical and biological analyses from Greenland ice cores, marine sediments from the North Atlantic and elsewhere and many other archives of past climate have demonstrated that local temperatures, wind regimes and water cycles can change rapidly within just a few years. The comparison of results from records in different locations of the world shows that in the past major changes of hemispheric to global extent occurred. This has led to the notion of an unstable past climate that underwent phases of abrupt change. Therefore, an important concern is that the continued growth of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may constitute a perturbation sufficiently strong to trigger abrupt changes in the climate system. Such interference with the climate system could be considered dangerous, because it would have major global consequences.

Before discussing a few examples of such changes, it is useful to define the terms ‘abrupt’ and ‘major’. ‘Abrupt’ conveys the meaning that the changes occur much faster than the perturbation inducing the change; in other words, the response is nonlinear. A ‘major’ climate change is one that involves changes that exceed the range of current natural variability and have a spatial extent ranging from several thousand kilometres to global. At local to regional scales, abrupt changes are a common characteristic of natural climate variability. Here, isolated, short-lived events that are more appropriately referred to as ‘extreme events’ are not considered, but rather large-scale changes that evolve rapidly and persist for several years to decades. For instance, the mid-1970s shift in sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific, or the salinity reduction in the upper 1,000 m of the Labrador Sea since the mid-1980s, are examples of abrupt events with local to regional consequences, as opposed to the larger-scale, longer-term events that are the focus here.

One example is the potential collapse, or shut-down of the Gulf Stream, which has received broad public attention. The Gulf Stream is a primarily horizontal current in the north-western Atlantic Ocean driven by winds. Although a stable feature of the general circulation of the ocean, its northern extension, which feeds deep-water formation in the Greenland-Norwegian-Iceland Seas and thereby delivers substantial amounts of heat to these seas and nearby land areas, is influenced strongly by changes in the density of the surface waters in these areas. This current constitutes the northern end of a basin-scale meridional overturning circulation (MOC) that is established along the western boundary of the Atlantic basin. A consistent result from climate model simulations is that if the density of the surface waters in the North Atlantic decreases due to warming or a reduction in salinity, the strength of the MOC is decreased, and with it, the delivery of heat into these areas. Strong sustained reductions in salinity could induce even more substantial reduction, or complete shut-down of the MOC in all climate model projections. Such changes have indeed happened in the distant past.

The issue now is whether the increasing human influence on the atmosphere constitutes a strong enough perturbation to the MOC that such a change might be induced. The increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to warming and an intensification of the hydrological cycle, with the latter making the surface waters in the North Atlantic less salty as increased rain leads to more freshwater runoff to the ocean from the region’s rivers. Warming also causes land ice to melt, adding more freshwater and further reducing the salinity of ocean surface waters. Both effects would reduce the density of the surface waters (which must be dense and heavy enough to sink in order to drive the MOC), leading to a reduction in the MOC in the 21st century. This reduction is predicted to proceed in lockstep with the warming: none of the current models simulates an abrupt (nonlinear) reduction or a complete shut-down in this century. There is still a large spread among the models’ simulated reduction in the MOC, ranging from virtually no response to a reduction of over 50% by the end of the 21st century. This cross- model variation is due to differences in the strengths of atmosphere and ocean feedbacks simulated in these models.

Uncertainty also exists about the long-term fate of the MOC. Many models show a recovery of the MOC once climate is stabilised. But some models have thresholds for the MOC, and they are passed when the forcing is strong enough and lasts long enough. Such simulations then show a gradual reduction of the MOC that continues even after climate is stabilised. A quantification of the likelihood of this occurring is not possible at this stage. Nevertheless, even if this were to occur, Europe would still experience warming, since the radiative forcing caused by increasing greenhouse gases would overwhelm the cooling associated with the MOC reduction. Catastrophic scenarios suggesting the beginning of an ice age triggered by a shutdown of the MOC are thus mere speculations, and no climate model has produced such an outcome. In fact, the processes leading to an ice age are sufficiently well understood and so completely different from those discussed here, that we can confidently exclude this scenario.

Irrespective of the long-term evolution of the MOC, model simulations agree that the warming and resulting decline in salinity will significantly reduce deep and intermediate water formation in the Labrador Sea during the next few decades. This will alter the characteristics of the intermediate water masses in the North Atlantic and eventually affect the deep ocean. The long-term effects of such a change are unknown.

Other widely discussed examples of abrupt climate changes are the rapid disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, or the sudden collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Model simulations and observations indicate that warming in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere is accelerating the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and that increased snowfall due to the intensified hydrological cycle is unable to compensate for this melting. As a consequence, the Greenland Ice Sheet may shrink substantially in the coming centuries. Moreover, results suggest that there is a critical temperature threshold beyond which the Greenland Ice Sheet would be committed to disappearing completely, and that threshold could be crossed in this century. However, the total melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which would raise global sea level by about seven metres, is a slow process that would take many hundreds of years to complete.

Recent satellite and in situ observations of ice streams behind disintegrating ice shelves highlight some rapid reactions of ice sheet systems. This raises new concern about the overall stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the collapse of which would trigger another five to six metres of sea level rise. While these streams appear buttressed by the shelves in front of them, it is currently unknown whether a reduction or failure of this buttressing of relatively limited areas of the ice sheet could actually trigger a widespread discharge of many ice streams and hence a destabilisation of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Ice sheet models are only beginning to capture such small-scale dynamical processes that involve complicated interactions with the glacier bed and the ocean at the perimeter of the ice sheet. Therefore, no quantitative information is available from the current generation of ice sheet models as to the likelihood or timing of such an event.