Early Warning from Space for a Few Key Tipping Points in Physical, Biological, and Social-Ecological Systems

Swingedouw, Didier; Ifejika Speranza, Chinwe; Bartsch, Annett; Durand, Gael; Jamet, Cedric; Beaugrand, Gregory; Conversi, Alessandra (2020). Early Warning from Space for a Few Key Tipping Points in Physical, Biological, and Social-Ecological Systems. Surveys in geophysics, 41(6), pp. 1237-1284. Springer 10.1007/s10712-020-09604-6

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In this review paper, we explore latest results concerning a few key tipping elements of the Earth system in the ocean, cryosphere, and land realms, namely the Atlantic overturning circulation and the subpolar gyre system, the marine ecosystems, the permafrost, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and in terrestrial resource use systems. All these different tipping elements share common characteristics related to their nonlinear nature. They can also interact with each other leading to synergies that can lead to cascading tipping points. Even if the probability of each tipping event is low, they can happen relatively rapidly, involve multiple variables, and have large societal impacts. Therefore, adaptation measures and management in general should extend their focus beyond slow and continuous changes, into abrupt, nonlinear, possibly cascading, high impact phenomena. Remote sensing observations are found to be decisive in the understanding and determination of early warning signals of many tipping elements. Nevertheless, considerable research still remains to properly incorporate these data in the current generation of coupled Earth system models. This is a key prerequisite to correctly develop robust decadal prediction systems that may help to assess the risk of crossing thresholds potentially crucial for society. The prediction of tipping points remains difficult, notably due to stochastic resonance, i.e. the interaction between natural variability and anthropogenic forcing, asking for large ensembles of predictions to correctly assess the risks. Furthermore, evaluating the proximity to crucial thresholds using process-based understanding of each system remains a key aspect to be developed for an improved assessment of such risks. This paper finally proposes a few research avenues concerning the use of remote sensing data and the need for combining different sources of data, and having long and precise-enough time series of the key variables needed to monitor Earth system tipping elements.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Review Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Geographies of Sustainability > Unit Land Systems and Sustainable Land Management (LS-SLM)
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography

UniBE Contributor:

Ifejika Speranza, Chinwe








Aline Barbara Wicki

Date Deposited:

17 Sep 2020 15:06

Last Modified:

18 Oct 2020 02:50

Publisher DOI:






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