Global hotspots could tip the balance of European climate

The world's environment is regulated by a series of "hotspots" located around the globe, which would pose a serious threat to the European climate if they became unstable, a leading scientist has said.

Twelve so-called “tipping points”, including the Sahara Desert, the Amazon jungle, the gulf stream and the Asian monsoon help to maintain nature’s balance and control the environment, according to Professor John Schellnhuber of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Potsdam Institute in Germany.

However, as the effects of global warming are now beginning to show, these hotspots are beginning to become unstable, which Professor Schellnhuber says could have disastrous implications for our planet and everything living on it if actions are not taken now to prevent global warming.

“The earth is complex, like the human body and these tipping points are like the body’s vital organs,” Professor Schellnhuber told edie. “We need to study them and begin to understand how they function before we inadvertently destroy them.”

Dr Will Steffen, chief scientist of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), said that the increase in human activity since the Second World War was at the core of the problem.

“The growth in world economy, resource use, telecommunications, transport and global connectivity has been astounding. The consequent imprint on the earth’s environment is now unmistakeable. Such a rapid, global-scale increase in pressure on the planet is likely to lead to increasing instability in our environment, and we are already seeing evidence of this,” Dr Steffen said.

He added that there were sure to be other instabilities in the global environment that are currently unforeseen and not yet understood, and the harder that we push our planet, the more likely we will be to trigger off more unexpected climatic events.

Current climate models predict that global warming could trigger a greening of the desert, the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and irreversibly change the world’s coastal zones. Professor Schellnhuber said that the ice sheets in Greenland were already melting rapidly, and parts of the rainforest were now semi-arid:

“This creates the peculiar and disturbing prospect that one day the relationship between the Sahara and the Amazon could be reversed. If the ice sheets melt and the gulf stream collapses it will lead to an enormous regional shift in climate.”

The Hollywood movie The day after tomorrow depicts a possible outcome if the ice caps were to melt and the North Atlantic current shifted, and has been branded by many as sensationalist, but Professor Schellnhuber said that, while exaggerated, the story is not so far from the truth.

“Such a drastic change in the weather would never happen at such a speed, and it would have the biggest impact on North Western Europe rather than America, but if we do nothing for another 20 or 30 years, the damage will be irreversible and we will all feel the effects.”

He told edie that the last year’s heatwave and this summer’s torrential rain and hurricanes around the world are just small scale changes to the weather. If the earth’s tipping points became unbalanced, the climatic changes would be on a very large scale.

In a time where NASA has invested large resources in an asteroid-spotting programme to protect the earth from any potential collisions, Professor Schellnhuber stated that at least as much attention should be paid to protecting our planet’s environment.

“We have so far completely underestimated the importance of these locations,” he said. “What we do know is that going beyond critical thresholds in these regions could have dramatic consequences. If we can afford to gaze up at the sky looking for asteroids, we should be able to watch our own planet with as much care.”

By Jane Kettle

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