NYT Op Ed on Climate Tipping Points

While I’m not sure the article’s definition of “dynamical systems” holds water, (OK, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) the rest of the this Op-Ed entitled “Searching for Clues to Calamity” is very interesting, and should be especially considered by people unfamiliar with, well, dynamical systems. By Scientific American executive editor Fred Guterl, and author of The Fate of Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, the article points to a case where tipping-point theory clearly applied both as prediction and as prescription.

Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state.

Science is a graveyard of grand principles that fail in the end to explain the real world. So it is all the more surprising that Mr. Scheffer’s idea worked.

Scheffer is now on a team trying to identify comparable dynamics in the climate system. Among the more serious concerns mentioned is a failure of the Indian monsoon. This has been out of fashion since the late Reid Bryson of Wisconsin, who first warned about it, got on the wrong side of the global warming debate, sticking to his early prediction of cooling.


  1. I think that global warming will involve some change of Asian monsoon. But it is very uncertain even whether it will strengthen or weaken. I think it unlikely that its intensity will change uniformly. Maybe wetness in the Indochina Peninsula will change oppositely to that in the Indian Subcontinent. Maybe monsoon rainfall in India will strengthen in southern India and refuse to propagate northward and thus bring drought to northern India. And thus it will be extremely difficult to attribute any changes in monsoon to anthropogenic change of greenhouse effect. I do not mean that we should not use Asian monsoon as a cause to mitigate climate change, but I mean it is not simple.

  2. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, July 22, 2012 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Single Planet

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