Why is global warming so hard to predict?

Animals, trees, the ocean, humans, buildings: all of these interact in unimaginably complicated ways. Considering this, scientists are quite successful at predicting the future [6]. But they can often be wrong too [6] – one of the key reasons why is the existence of “tipping points” [7].

It’s pretty simple to make predictions if a small change in one thing always causes the same small change in something else. But this is not the case with climate change. There are certain “tipping points” at which a small change in temperature causes a much larger response, such as a large amount of ice melt [2], or sudden death of a forest [1]. This can cause a cascade of events [8], or a “domino effect” [9]. Swipe across for some simple diagrams!

Let’s look at an example. High temperatures make trees die from lack of water, or fire [4]. When trees are alive, they take water from the ground and release it into the air [10], which later falls as rain [11]. With fewer trees, less water is released into the air so there is less rain [4]. This makes the region even drier, so more trees die [4]. This causes a runaway process of tree death that is hard to stop [4]. It’s predicted that 4°C of warming would be needed to turn most of the central, southern and eastern Amazon rainforest into degraded savanna [4]. However, combined with deforestation and fires started by humans, this could happen much sooner [4]. We will only know exactly where the tipping point lies once it is already tipped [4]. Let’s hope we never find out, but the current management of the Amazon rainforest makes it more likely that we will [5].


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