Slowing down as an early warning signal for abrupt climate change

V. Dakos, M. Scheffer, E.H. van Nes, V. Brovkin, V. Petoukhov, H. Held

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

508 Citations (Scopus)


In the Earth's history, periods of relatively stable climate have often been interrupted by sharp transitions to a contrasting state. One explanation for such events of abrupt change is that they happened when the earth system reached a critical tipping point. However, this remains hard to prove for events in the remote past, and it is even more difficult to predict if and when we might reach a tipping point for abrupt climate change in the future. Here, we analyze eight ancient abrupt climate shifts and show that they were all preceded by a characteristic slowing down of the fluctuations starting well before the actual shift. Such slowing down, measured as increased autocorrelation, can be mathematically shown to be a hallmark of tipping points. Therefore, our results imply independent empirical evidence for the idea that past abrupt shifts were associated with the passing of critical thresholds. Because the mechanism causing slowing down is fundamentally inherent to tipping points, it follows that our way to detect slowing down might be used as a universal early warning signal for upcoming catastrophic change. Because tipping points in ecosystems and other complex systems are notoriously hard to predict in other ways, this is a promising perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14308-14312
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • system
  • thresholds
  • feedbacks
  • earth
  • time

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