Beyond bifurcation: using complex models to understand and predict abrupt climate change

S. Bathiany, H. Dijkstra, M. Crucifix, V. Dakos, V. Brovkin, M.S. Williamson, T.M. Lenton, M. Scheffer

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Research on the possibility of future abrupt climate change has been popularized under the term ‘tipping points’ and has often been motivated by using simple, low-dimensional concepts. These include the iconic fold bifurcation, where abrupt change occurs when a stable equilibrium is lost, and early warning signals of such a destabilization that can be derived based on a simple stochastic model approach. In this paper, we review the challenges and limitations that are associated with this view, and we discuss promising research paths to explore the causes and the likelihood of abrupt changes in future climate.
We focus on several climate system components and ecosystems that have been proposed as candidates for tipping points, with an emphasis on ice sheets, the Atlantic Ocean circulation, vegetation in North Africa and Arctic sea ice. In most example cases, multiple equilibria found in simple models do not appear in complex models or become more difficult to find, while the potential for abrupt change still remains. We also discuss how the low-dimensional logic of current methods to detect and interpret the existence of multiple equilibria can fail in complex models. Moreover, we highlight promising methods to detect abrupt shifts and to obtain information about the mechanisms behind them. These methods include linear approaches such as statistical stability indicators and radiative feedback analysis as well as non-linear approaches to detect dynamical transitions and infer the causality behind events.
Given the huge complexity of comprehensive process-based climate models and the non-linearity and regional peculiarities of the processes involved, the uncertainties associated with the possible future occurrence of abrupt shifts are large and not well quantified. We highlight the potential of data mining approaches to tackle this problem and finally discuss how the scientific community can collaborate to make efficient progress in understanding abrupt climate shifts.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberdzw004
JournalDynamics and Statistics of the Climate System
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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    Bathiany, S., Dijkstra, H., Crucifix, M., Dakos, V., Brovkin, V., Williamson, M. S., Lenton, T. M., & Scheffer, M. (2016). Beyond bifurcation: using complex models to understand and predict abrupt climate change. Dynamics and Statistics of the Climate System, 1(1), [dzw004].