5 April 2023

A connection made up of interconnected climate alterations exists between the Amazon, Tibet Plateau and Antarctica, a Chinese study says. Once a so-called tipping point is reached in one region, the phenomenon is triggered in another area of the Planet

by Matteo Cavallito


Deforestation in the Amazon may produce direct effects on the climate of other regions of the Planet far apart, such as Antarctica or the Tibetan Plateau. That is the hypothesis advanced by a group of Chinese scientists in a research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. According to the authors, the American NGO Mongabay reports, Earth’s climate is the result of a complex network of interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, land, ice and biosphere.

The problem is that many of these elements are now being pushed toward critical thresholds beyond which changes are likely to become permanent, “ultimately causing the whole Earth system to shift into a new state possibly hostile to life in its current forms.” The research starts from this very premise by analyzing the effects of the chain reaction.

The research

“Earth system components that have a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganizes are called tipping elements,” explained Jingfang Fan, a researcher at Beijing Normal University in China and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany and co-author of the study, quoted by Mongabay. These include the Amazon rainforest biome, the East and West Antarctic ice sheets, Arctic permafrost, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Once the so-called tipping point is reached in one region, scientists point out, it is possible for the phenomenon to be triggered in another area of the Planet.

By analyzing a huge number of hourly air temperature measurements at more than 65,000 locations and operating computer simulations to predict future climate changes, the authors described these relationships in mathematical terms. For example, the numbers showed that there was a clear connection between the abnormal temperatures recorded in the Amazon and Tibet over the past 40 years. A similar relationship was found between temperature data from the Planet’s main forest and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Le possibili connessioni (linee gialle tratteggiate) tra gli elementi di ribaltamento (esagoni numerati) della Terra. Le linee rosse solide mostrano le connessioni a distanza scoperte nello studio, le frecce indicano la direzione dell'effetto. Immagine: Liu, T., Chen, D., Yang, L. et al. “Teleconnections among tipping elements in the Earth system”. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 67–74 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01558-4 Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The possible connections (dashed yellow lines) between the tipping elements (numbered hexagons) of the Earth. Solid red lines show the distant connections discovered in the study, arrows indicate the direction of the effect. Image: Liu, T., Chen, D., Yang, L. et al. “Teleconnections among tipping elements in the Earth system.” Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 67-74 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01558-4 Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

From the Amazon to Tibet

In the study, the researchers observed how deforestation in the Amazon, produced by arson, generated effects on the Tibetan plateau based on atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns. “Wind or ocean currents may carry dust or black carbon particles generated by the burning of the Amazon forest, which could then be transported to the Tibetan Plateau,” Fan explained. The phenomenon would help warm the atmosphere and melt snow.

According to the investigation, the snow cover on the plateau has been losing stability since 2008. This aspect would be nothing more than the expression of the tipping element. Although it is not yet clear if and how close to its tipping point the area can be.

Increasingly frequent and threatening phenomena

“The high degree of synchronization of the extreme events in the Amazon Rainforest Area and the Tibetan Plateau supports the existence of a teleconnection,” the research states. “Moreover, we provided strong support that the snow cover in Tibetan Plateau has been losing stability and is operating close to a tipping point.”

Global warming, the authors add, is likely to “push parts of the Earth system—tipping elements—into abrupt or irreversible changes, from collapsing ice sheets and thawing permafrost, to shifting monsoons and forest dieback.”

It is therefore no coincidence, the study points out, that some phenomena arising in the context of climate change, such as floods, droughts and sea-level rise, have become more frequent and threatening. These changes, moreover, “influence the nature of societies and the performance of economies.”