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A new study of climate “tipping points,” such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, could come within a human lifetime, scientists have said.
This photo shows smoke rising from an illegal fire in the Amazon rainforest in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, on September 15, 2021. (Image credit: MAURO PIMENTEL / Contributor via Getty Images)
Earth’s ecosystems may be careering toward collapse much sooner than scientists thought, a new study of our planet’s warming climate has warned.

Aerial view showing smoke rising from an illegal fire at the Amazonia rainforest in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, on September 15, 2021.
According to the research, more than a fifth of the world’s potentially catastrophic tipping points — such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost, the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and the sudden transformation of the Amazon rainforest into savanna — could occur as soon as 2038.

In climatology, a “tipping point” is the threshold beyond which a localized climate system, or “tipping element,” irreversibly changes. For instance, if the Greenland ice sheet were to collapse, it would also reduce snowfall in the northern part of the island, making large parts of the sheet irretrievable.

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Yet the science behind these dramatic transformations is poorly understood and often based on oversimplified models. Now, a new attempt to understand their inner workings, published June 22 in the journal Nature, has revealed that they may happen much sooner than we thought.

Related: Could climate change make humans go extinct?

“Over a fifth of ecosystems worldwide are in danger of collapsing,” co-author Simon Willcock, a professor of sustainability at Bangor University in the U.K., said in a statement. “However, ongoing stresses and extreme events interact to accelerate rapid changes that may well be out of our control. Once these reach a tipping point, it’s too late.”

Unlike the well-established link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, the study of tipping points is a young and contentious science.

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