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Amazon heat drives changes on the other side of the globe

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change has found that, although the Amazon rainforest and the Tibetan Plateau are located on different sides of the globe, changes in the South American ecosystem caused by global warming could trigger changes in the vicinity of the Himalayas.

“Logging, road construction, and warming are already today stressing the Amazon rainforest, and will likely do so even more in the future – and while the Amazon region is of course an important Earth system element by itself, it’s also a burning question if and how changes in that region could affect other parts of the world,” said study co-author Jingfang Fan, an expert in Earth Systems Analysis at the Beijing Normal University in China and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany. 

“For the first time, we’ve now been able to robustly identify and quantify these so called teleconnections. Our research confirms that Earth system tipping elements are indeed inter-linked even over long distances, and the Amazon is one key example how this could play out.”

The scientists analyzed near-surface air temperature changes in a grid of over 65,000 subregions of the globe, using data collected during the past four decades. The investigation revealed a pronounced propagation pathway spanning more than 20,000 kilometers – from South America via Southern Africa to the Middle East and reaching finally the Tibetan Plateau. According to the experts, this propagation pathway could be explained by our planet’s main atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns.

Afterwards, the researchers used climate computer simulations to assess how global warming could impact this pathway by the end of the century. “We’ve been surprised to see how strongly climate extremes in the Amazon are connected to climate extremes in Tibet,” said study co-author Jürgen Kurths, an expert in Complexity Sciences at PIK. “When it’s getting warmer in the Amazon, it also does so in Tibet, hence for temperature there’s a positive correlation. It’s different for precipitation. When we have more rain in the Amazon, there’s less snowfall in Tibet.”

Moreover, the analysis revealed that the Tibetan Plateau has already been losing stability and approaching a tipping point since 2008. “Our research underlines that tipping cascades are a risk to be taken seriously: inter-linked tipping elements in the Earth system can trigger each other, with potentially severe consequences,” warned co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an atmospheric physicist at PIK. 

“To be clear, it’s unlikely that the climate system as a whole will tip. Yet, over time, sub-continental tipping events can severely affect entire societies and threaten important parts of the biosphere. This is a risk we should rather avoid. And we can do so by rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and by developing nature-based solutions for removing CO2 from the atmosphere,” he concluded.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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