What Are Climate Tipping Points And How Close Are We To Crossing Them?

Reaching the Tipping Point: Understanding the Critical Thresholds of Our Climate System
February 11, 2023
4 minutes

Shrinking glaciers, ocean currents, coral reef degradation, wildfires– as the infinite cost of climate change reaches irreversible highs, the world has been forced to recognize multiple “catastrophic” climate tipping points that could topple like dominoes, according to scientists.

Long before The Industrial Revolution, the global average amount of carbon dioxide was about 280 parts per million (ppm). In 2021, the level has skyrocketed to almost 420 ppm. Every additional tonne of CO2 emissions that is released into the atmosphere adds significantly to global warming. So much so that The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that exceeding 2°C of warming could have catastrophic consequences and that we need to keep global warming to 1.5°C.


In fact, the last time carbon dioxide levels on our planet were as high as today was more than 4 million years ago. So what are climate tipping points and how close are we to crossing them?


What Are Climate Tipping Points?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines tipping points as “critical thresholds in a system that, when exceeded, can lead to a significant change in the state of the system, often with an understanding that the change is irreversible.”


To put it simply, tipping points transpire when global heating pushes temperatures beyond a critical threshold, which in return, leads to accelerated and irreversible impacts. It’s been known that today, some large ice sheets in Antarctica have passed their tipping points. Which will force inevitable, large sea-level rises in the upcoming centuries.


 With this in mind, there is no sugar-coating the fact that “we are on a catastrophic path,” as António Guterres, secretary general of the UN points out. “We can either save our world or condemn humanity to a hellish future.”


The IPCC identifies several tipping points of climate change. Here are the 7 most likely to be crossed this century due to human activity:

●   Greenland ice sheet

●   Permafrost

●   Ocean circulation and temperature (AMOC)

●   Monsoons

●   Amazon Rainforests

●   Antarctic ice sheets

●   Coral reef die-offs


How Close Are We To Crossing The Climate Tipping Points? 

Within just 60 years or so, the annual rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 was about 100 times faster than previous natural increases. The Earth's surface temperature has already risen by approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius from the average in 1850-1900, and we are on course to exceed the much-feared 1.5-degree Celsius barrier between 2026 and 2042 if emissions are not significantly reduced.


What The Future Will Look Like If We Reach The Climate Tipping Points?

Greenland Ice Sheet 

The Arctic ice sheet is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet, contributing about one millimeter to global sea levels each year. This is explained by the fact that as the sun-reflecting ice surface melts due to global warming, deeper layers of the ocean and land are exposed; and because both the blue ocean and land absorb the sun's energy better and faster, this vicious cycle inevitably leads to an increase in temperatures across the region and thus further melting.


The Arctic, the world's second-largest ice sheet, has enough water that if totally melted, could raise sea levels by 7.2 meters (22 feet). A 1.5C increase in average temperatures might be the tipping point at which the region's ice sheets melt irreversibly. In the past two decades, Greenland lost more than 5,100 billion tons (4,700 billion metric tons) of ice, an amount that is enough to flood the entire United States in half a meter (1.5 feet) of water.



Permafrost which covers parts of Siberia, Alaska northern Canada, and the Tibetan plateau is a ground that has been frozen for at least two years and is composed mostly of rock, soil, silt, ice, and organic stuff. It also holds the largest global carbon reserve from plants and animals that died and decomposed over thousands of years. Permafrost is separated from the atmosphere by an "active layer," which consists of living plants in the summer and snow in the winter. The active layer is responsible for transferring heat from or to the permafrost. It is estimated that it contains about 1,400 billion tons of carbon, which is a number nearly double the amount present in the atmosphere.


Consequently, carbon dioxide and methane will be released into the atmosphere when the temperature warms and permafrost thaws. Scientists warn that the proliferation of these very deadly gases would contribute 0.3 degrees Celsius to global warming and might lead to humans hitting other climate change tipping points considerably quicker.


Conclusion: Climate Tipping Points

With the climate tipping points closing in on us dangerously quickly, there is no denying that if we do not curb our carbon emissions immediately to keep global warming below 2°C, we are headed for irreversible and catastrophic conditions. There is however light at the end of the tunnel. A 2020 study proposed six social tipping points that could help stabilize Earth’s climate: removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation, building carbon-neutral cities, divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels, clarifying the moral implications of fossil fuels, expanding climate education and engagement, and making greenhouse gas emissions transparent.


 As the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned, it is ‘now or never’ to limit global warming to 1.5C.