Feedback Loops Could Heat Earth 'Beyond Anything Humans Can Control'

Feedback loops identified in a study could heat the Earth beyond anything humans can control, scientists have found.

A team of international scientists, including ones from Oregon State University, identified 27 amplifying climate feedback loops in a study published in the journal One Earth. These feedback loops could drastically worsen the effects of climate change.

As the climate warms, it can trigger a process known as a feedback loop, which can either increase or decrease the effects of greenhouse gases. Amplifying feedback loops—those that worsen the effects of climate change—cause even more warming, as they initiate a chain reaction that keeps repeating itself.

A real-world example of this can be linked to the warming of the Arctic. As the climate warms, and Arctic ice melts, this in turn produces even more warming, as the sea water soaks up rather than returns solar radiation.

Ice melting in the Arctic
A stock photo shows ice melting in the Arctic. Amplifying feedback loops repeat the warming process over and over again. kappaphoto/Getty

Scientists are concerned that some of the amplifying feedback loops identified in the new study are not fully accounted for in many models that aim to tackle climate change.

William Ripple, professor of ecology at Oregon State University and co-author of the report, told Newsweek: "Climate feedback loops are crucial to study because they help us accurately predict future climate change. For example, reinforcing feedbacks amplify the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to additional warming. Thus, understanding feedbacks and their interactions can inform mitigation and adaptation strategies."

The study calls for drastic action from policymakers, as these feedback loops could bring the earth to a climate "tipping point." If this point is reached, it will be significantly more difficult to reverse the effects.

Ripple said that in the worst-case scenario, these amplifying feedback loops will be strong enough to trigger a "tragic climate change that's moved beyond anything humans can control."

"In some cases, it may be possible to weaken the effects of a feedback loop by reducing the factors that contribute to it. For example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can help to mitigate the effects of the amplifying feedback loops that contribute to global warming," Ripple told Newsweek.

This means action from policymakers is needed immediately. The study notes that the feedback loops identified make up the most-extensive list available. During their research, scientists identified the 27 amplifying feedback loop, seven dampening feedbacks, and seven uncertain feedbacks.

Research and modeling that accounts for all feedback loops is urgently needed, the study said.

"Now that we have identified many amplifying climate feedback loops, it is important to scale up and accelerate climate mitigation efforts. Priorities for policymakers should include phasing out the use of fossil fuels and restoring natural ecosystems. In addition, funding is needed for climate adaptation efforts, especially in the developing world," Ripple added.

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Ripple, Wolf et al, Scientists warn of many dangerous climate feedback loops, One Earth, 17-Feb-2023