Oct 27 2015
Abrupt transitions of regional climate in response to the gradual rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are notoriously difficult to foresee. However, such events could be particularly challenging in view of the capacity required for society and ecosystems to adapt to them. We present, to our knowledge, the first systematic screening of the massive climate model ensemble informing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and reveal evidence of 37 forced regional abrupt changes in the ocean, sea ice, snow cover, permafrost, and terrestrial biosphere that arise after a certain global temperature increase. Eighteen out of 37 events occur for global warming levels of less than 2°, a threshold sometimes presented as a safe limit. Although most models predict one or more such events, any specific occurrence typically appears in only a few models. We find no compelling evidence for a general relation between the overall number of abrupt shifts and the level of global warming. However, we do note that abrupt changes in ocean circulation occur more often for moderate warming (less than 2°), whereas over land they occur more often for warming larger than 2°. Using a basic proportion test, however, we find that the number of abrupt shifts identified in Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 scenarios is significantly larger than in other scenarios of lower radiative forcing. This suggests the potential for a gradual trend of destabilization of the climate with respect to such shifts, due to increasing global mean temperature change.