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Timescales of events described as 'abrupt' may vary dramatically. Changes recorded in the climate of Greenland at the end of the Younger Dryas, as measured by ice-cores, imply a sudden warming of +10 °C (+18 °F) within a timescale of a few years. Other abrupt changes are the +4 °C (+7.2 °F) on Greenland 11,270 years ago or the abrupt +6 °C (11 °F) warming 22,000 years ago on Antarctica. By contrast, the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum may have initiated anywhere between a few decades and several thousand years. Finally, Earth Systems models project that under ongoing greenhouse gas emissions as early as 2047, the Earth's near surface temperature could depart from the range of variability in the last 150 years, affecting over 3 billion people and most places of great species diversity on Earth.
It has been postulated that teleconnections, oceanic and atmospheric processes, on different timescales, connect both hemispheres during abrupt climate change.
The IPCC states that global warming "could lead to some effects that are abrupt or irreversible".
A 2013 report from the U.S. National Research Council called for attention to the abrupt impacts of climate change, stating that even steady, gradual change in the physical climate system can have abrupt impacts elsewhere, such as in human infrastructure and ecosystems, if critical thresholds are crossed. The report emphasizes the need for an early warning system that could help society better anticipate sudden changes and emerging impacts.
Scientific understanding of abrupt climate change is generally poor. The probability of abrupt change for some climate related feedbacks may be low. Factors that may increase the probability of abrupt climate change include higher magnitudes of global warming, warming that occurs more rapidly and warming that is sustained over longer time periods.
Climate models are unable yet to predict abrupt climate change events, or most of the past abrupt climate shifts. A potential abrupt feedback due to thermokarst lake formations in the Arctic, in response to thawing permafrost soils, releasing additional greenhouse gas methane, is currently not accounted for in climate models.
There have also been two occasions when the Atlantic's Meridional Overturning Circulation lost a crucial safety factor. The Greenland Sea flushing at 75 °N shut down in 1978, recovering over the next decade. Then the second-largest flushing site, the Labrador Sea, shut down in 1997 for ten years. While shutdowns overlapping in time have not been seen during the 50 years of observation, previous total shutdowns had severe worldwide climate consequences.
A summary of the path of the thermohaline circulation. Blue paths represent deep-water currents, and red paths represent surface currents.
The Permian-Triassic extinction event, labelled "P-Tr" here, is the most significant extinction event in this plot for marine genera.
Abrupt climate change has likely been the cause of wide-ranging and severe effects:
The dark ocean surface reflects only 6 percent of incoming solar radiation, instead sea ice reflects 50 to 70 percent.
One source of abrupt climate change effects is a feedback process, in which a warming event causes a change that adds to further warming. The same can apply to cooling. Example of such feedback processes are:
Ice-albedo feedback in which the advance or retreat of ice cover alters the albedo ("whiteness") of the earth and its ability to absorb the sun's energy.
Isostatic rebound in response to glacier retreat (unloading) and increased local salinity have been attributed to increased volcanic activity at the onset of the abrupt Bølling-Allerød warming. They are associated with the interval of intense volcanic activity, hinting at an interaction between climate and volcanism: enhanced short-term melting of glaciers, possibly via albedo changes from particle fallout on glacier surfaces.
The Younger Dryas event, notably its sudden end. It is the most recent of the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles and began 12,900 years ago and moved back into a warm-and-wet climate regime about 11,600 years ago. It has been suggested that: "The extreme rapidity of these changes in a variable that directly represents regional climate implies that the events at the end of the last glaciation may have been responses to some kind of threshold or trigger in the North Atlantic climate system." A model for this event based on disruption to the thermohaline circulation has been supported by other studies.
The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse occurred 300 million years ago, at which time tropical rainforests were devastated by climate change. The cooler, drier climate had a severe effect on the biodiversity of amphibians, the primary form of vertebrate life on land.
A 2017 study concluded that similar conditions to today's Antarctic ozone hole (atmospheric circulation and hydroclimate changes), ~17,700 years ago, when stratospheric ozone depletion contributed to abrupt accelerated Southern Hemisphere deglaciation. The event coincidentally happened with an estimated 192-year series of massive volcanic eruptions, attributed to Mount Takahe in West Antarctica.
^Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, Ocean Studies Board, Polar Research Board, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council. (2002). Abrupt climate change : inevitable surprises. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. p. 108. ISBN0-309-07434-7.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
^Grachev, A.M.; Severinghaus, J.P. (2005). "A revised +10±4 °C magnitude of the abrupt change in Greenland temperature at the Younger Dryas termination using published GISP2 gas isotope data and air thermal diffusion constants". Quaternary Science Reviews. 24 (5-6): 513-9. Bibcode:2005QSRv...24..513G. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2004.10.016.
Clark, P.U.; et al. (December 2008). "Executive Summary". Abrupt Climate Change. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Reston, Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey. pp. 1-7.
^ abcMayewski, Paul Andrew (2016). "Abrupt climate change: Past, present and the search for precursors as an aid to predicting events in the future (Hans Oeschger Medal Lecture)". Egu General Assembly Conference Abstracts. 18: EPSC2016-2567. Bibcode:2016EGUGA..18.2567M.
^J. Hansen; M. Sato; P. Hearty; R. Ruedy; et al. (2015). "Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming is highly dangerous". Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions. 15 (14): 20059-20179. Bibcode:2015ACPD...1520059H. doi:10.5194/acpd-15-20059-2015. Our results at least imply that strong cooling in the North Atlantic from AMOC shutdown does create higher wind speed. * * * The increment in seasonal mean wind speed of the northeasterlies relative to preindustrial conditions is as much as 10-20%. Such a percentage increase of wind speed in a storm translates into an increase of storm power dissipation by a factor ~1.4-2, because wind power dissipation is proportional to the cube of wind speed. However, our simulated changes refer to seasonal mean winds averaged over large grid-boxes, not individual storms.* * * Many of the most memorable and devastating storms in eastern North America and western Europe, popularly known as superstorms, have been winter cyclonic storms, though sometimes occurring in late fall or early spring, that generate near-hurricane-force winds and often large amounts of snowfall. Continued warming of low latitude oceans in coming decades will provide more water vapor to strengthen such storms. If this tropical warming is combined with a cooler North Atlantic Ocean from AMOC slowdown and an increase in midlatitude eddy energy, we can anticipate more severe baroclinic storms.