Simple Predictions Were Wrong: New Research Shatters Old Climate Change Assumptions

Global Warming Climate Change Model

Recent research on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation reveals the climate system’s complexity and unpredictability, challenging the notion of straightforward early warning signals for climate disasters. The study underscores the importance of embracing the intricate dynamics of climate systems and the need for an integrated approach to climate science.

New mathematical modeling of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning – a system of ocean currents – shows greater complexity than previously thought.

An international team of scientists has warned against relying on nature providing straightforward ‘early warning’ indicators of a climate disaster, as new mathematical modeling shows new fascinating aspects of the complexity of the dynamics of climate.

It suggests that the climate system could be more unpredictable than previously thought.

By modeling the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, one of the main ocean current systems, the team which included mathematicians from the University of Leicester has found that the stability of the system is much more complex than simple ‘on-off’ states as previously assumed. Switches between these states might lead to major changes in the regional climate of the North Atlantic region, yet a far cry from the massive impacts of a transition between the qualitatively different states.

But some of these minor transitions might eventually upscale to cause a major changeover between the qualitatively different states, with massive global climatic impacts. Early warning signals might be unable to distinguish the degree of severity of the ensuing tipping points. Like a tower of Jenga blocks, removing some blocks may affect the stability of the system, but we cannot be certain which block will bring the whole system tumbling down.

Valerio Lucarini

Professor Valerio Lucarini from the University of Leicester School of Mathematical and Computer Science. Credit: University of Leicester

Publication and Significance of Findings

Their findings were recently published in Science Advances in a paper led by the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation is one of the most important fundamental features of the climate system. It transports heat from low to high latitudes in the northern Atlantic, so it helps create positive thermal anomalies in northern and western Europe and in the North Atlantic region downwind. A slowdown of the circulation would result in a relative cooling in this region.

Challenges in Climate Prediction

Predicting the behavior of our climate, as in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, is challenging due to its incredible complexity. Scientists either need a model of the highest possible resolution, or try to understand its behavior using a less resource-intensive model that allows for rigorous statistical analysis.

Professor Valerio Lucarini from the University of Leicester School of Mathematical and Computer Science said: “Within each state, there is a multiplicity of nearby states. Depending on where or what you are observing, you might find some indicators of nearing collapse. But it is not obvious whether this collapse will be contained to nearby states or lead to a major upheaval because the indicators only reflect the local properties of the system.

“These states are the different ways that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation organizes itself at large scales, with key implications for the global climate and especially regionally in the North Atlantic. Under some scenarios, the circulation could reach a ‘tipping point’ where the system is no longer stable and will collapse. Early warning indicators tell us that the system might be jumping to another state, but we do not know how different it will be.

“In a separate investigation we have seen something similar occurring in paleoclimatic records: when you change your timescale of interest – just like a magnification lens – you can discover smaller and smaller scale distinct features that are indicative of competing modes of operation of the global climate. Paleoclimatic records of the last 65 million years allowed us to provide a new interpretation of the climate evolution over that time period, and reveal these multiple competing states.

“This study paves the way to looking at the climate through the lens of statistical mechanics and complexity theory. It really stimulates a new outlook on climate, in which you have to put together complex numerical simulations, observational evidence and theory in an unavoidable mixture. You have to appreciate and endorse this complexity. There is no shortcut, no free lunch in our understanding of climate, but we are learning a lot from it.”

Reference: “A punctuated equilibrium analysis of the climate evolution of cenozoic exhibits a hierarchy of abrupt transitions” by Denis-Didier Rousseau, Witold Bagniewski and Valerio Lucarini, 12 July 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-38454-6

Funding: Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond, European Research Council

6 Comments on "Simple Predictions Were Wrong: New Research Shatters Old Climate Change Assumptions"

  1. David P. Camacho-Samano | April 1, 2024 at 2:09 pm | Reply

    Want to know how to regrow cartilage and strong bone cells, reverse nerve cell deterioration and analyze true causes of type 2 diabetes.

  2. Clyde Spencer | April 1, 2024 at 2:50 pm | Reply

    “… mathematicians from the University of Leicester has found that the stability of the system is much more complex than simple ‘on-off’ states as previously assumed.”

    In other words, the concept of a so-called Tipping Point is overly simplistic and misleading. Climate is more nuanced and undoubtedly more difficult to predict than saying that exceeding a particular temperature threshold will will result in a change from which recovery is impossible.

  3. Is this really a surprise to climate scientists? I have read multiple articles about the fear of the circulation slowing or even stopping, but have not seen a serious article that even comes close to describing the possibility as an imminent disaster. I don’t see any surprises in this article.

  4. Ralph Johnson | April 2, 2024 at 7:09 am | Reply

    Complexity, a word and process understanding not used enough or entangled enough in society, science is writing the book but the book is scattered information spread across institutions by interests of study. I am a advocate of the complexity theory with the assembly theory as the book of science. working in collaborations would prove to be the future humans are capable of.

  5. Sydney Ross Singer | April 2, 2024 at 11:03 am | Reply

    This article and study are implicitly critical of climate change hysteria. Clearly, climate science is in its infancy, with naive assumptions. And yet, this uncertain science is being used to justify climate change catastrophizing. And these uncertain and naive scientists with simplistic environmental assumptions propose geoengineering experiments to alter the climate.

  6. I could have told you that a long time ago.

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