The Earth is a system, rather than a thing: a constant, dynamic exchange of energy and nutrients among living and non-organic networks. And many of those systems may look stable, even after they’ve passed a point where dramatic change becomes inevitable in the near future, Brazilian research has found.
“Although a tipping point is set to bring irreversible change, due to a ‘residual effect’ the system appears to keep its original characteristics in a transition phase that masks the transformation which has already occurred,” SciDevNet reports, summarizing a study published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Extinction of an animal species, depletion of a water reservoir, melting of a big glacier — they all follow this pattern: when the tipping point is reached, damage will be irreversible,” said Everton Santos Medeiros, of the University of São Paulo Physics Institute, who conducted the research.
“For instance, an endangered species is doomed to inevitably disappear when it crosses its tipping point. However, individuals within that species may continue existing and reproducing in nature, even for a short time after that point is reached. This transitory effect hides the fact that in the long-term, the species will be extinguished.”
Thus masked, tipping points can be hard to identify “in real life,” concedes Prof. Luiz Iberê Caldas, who supervised Medeiro´s research and co-authored the journal article. “For example, can we recover the Atlantic rainforest in the São Paolo-Santos region or have we lost it inevitably? As there is still much vegetation in this area, it seems we can recover it with some initiative to remedy the damage. But is this really the case? Or is this leftover vegetation just a transitory effect unable to reverse the forest’s collapse?”
Previous research has speculated that the Arctic may be approaching several tipping points. With significant climate factors like atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases entering unprecedented territory, the imminence of others is a question to be faced on global scale.