Estimating the potential for twenty-first century sudden climate change.
I investigate the potential for sudden climate change during the current century. This investigation takes into account evidence from the Earth's history, from climate models and our understanding of the physical processes governing climate shifts. Sudden alterations to climate forcing seem to be improbable, with sudden changes instead most likely to arise from climate feedbacks. Based on projections from models validated against historical events, dramatic changes in ocean circulation appear unlikely. Ecosystem-climate feedbacks clearly have the potential to induce sudden change, but are relatively poorly understood at present. More probable sudden changes are large increases in the frequency of summer heatwaves and changes resulting from feedbacks involving hydrology. These include ice sheet decay, which may be set in motion this century. The most devastating consequences are likely to occur further in the future, however. Reductions in subtropical precipitation are likely to be the most severe hydrologic effects this century, with rapid changes due to the feedbacks of relatively well-understood large-scale circulation patterns. Water stress may become particularly acute in the Southwest US and Mexico, and in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where rainfall decreases of 10-25% (regionally) and up to 40% (locally) are projected.
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