Published on 6 October 2022
Decades-long time series that draw on ESA’s Earth observation archives are enabling scientists to uncover the threat of sudden and potentially irreversible changes to the icy parts of the planet.
Fueled by human-induced increases in greenhouse gas emissions, climate warming has been a continuous, gradual process, made up a of a procession of small changes that lead to a long-term shift in environmental conditions.
But evidence is now mounting that the cumulative impact of this incremental warming could trigger dramatic and wide-spread effects on the planet (1).
According to many experts, several elements of the Earth system are inching closer to thresholds of environmental change – known as climate tipping points – that, if crossed, could cause an abrupt shift in systems to a new stable state.
By most definitions of tipping points, these changes are self-propelling and can take far longer to reverse than to occur.
The climate science community is becoming increasingly concerned by this phenomenon, with successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revising upwards the risks posed by a host of tipping elements in the Earth system (2,3).
However, urgent research is needed to develop systems to detect and predict when and where these abrupt changes could occur, and to understand the risks they pose to communities and ecosystems worldwide.
Information delivered by satellites will play an essential role in these efforts, having already provided evidence to help identify tipping elements related to many environmental processes, including rapid ice sheet melting, altered ocean circulation, permafrost thawing, and shifts in boreal forest and tropical forest ecosystems.
The icy parts of the planet – known as the cryosphere – are particularly susceptible to these abrupt and dramatic shifts.
European Space Agency. (n.d.-a). Decades of satellite data reveal the risks of climate tipping points. Earth Online. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://earth.esa.int/eogateway/news/decades-of-satellite-data-reveal-the-risks-of-climate-tipping-points