Three consecutive years largely without monsoons, record-low soil moistures in the fall and below average winter snowpack have set the stage for the giant smoke plumes rising over Colorado this week…
The Sylvan fire was one of seven large fires in the state this year that collectively have burned 26,114 acres as of Friday. The fires put the state way ahead of where it was last year at this time. The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which helps to coordinate firefighting across five states, upgraded its preparedness level to 3 this week which did not happen until Aug. 7 last year. The level reflects the number of fires and crews needed to fight them, said Larry Helmerick, a spokesman for the agency…
As a potentially dry summer sets in, the state has been split by vastly different fire-danger conditions. Two back-to-back drought years have set the Western Slope up for an early and intense fire season while eastern Colorado made an unexpected recovery with a cold and wet May that has given rise to green slopes. The new, tall grasses could pose their own danger if hot temperatures dry them out in the coming months, experts say.
However, the conditions on the Western Slope and many part of the west are already reaching record drought levels. It’s possible the coming wildfire season could be worse than last year in the extreme conditions, said Jeff Colton, a warning coordination and incident meteorologist for the National Weather Service…
When the monsoon largely failed for the third year in a row on the Western Slope in 2020, the soils hit record low moisture levels and that dry soil soaked up the below average snowfall, hurting runoff, he said. Then last week, high temperatures hit in force with even Aspen hitting 90 degrees, he said. Humidity has also been extremely low, a contributor to fire risk…
Conditions in Colorado Springs
In Colorado Springs, the fire danger is higher than it would be in an average year even though the community is not currently in a drought, Fire Marshal Brett Lacey said.
The tall green grasses that flourished after a wet spring will likely pose a risk as they go dormant or die and dry out during the predicted hot and dry summer, he said.
When the grass catches fire they can produce flame lengths, up to triple the height of their own height, he said…
In eastern Utah the vegetation is starting to disappear, similar to conditions seen in 2012 when the region saw blowing dust.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously declined a petition by Imperial Valley farmer Michael Abatti claiming he and a handful of other agricultural landowners, not the Imperial Irrigation District, held senior rights to Colorado River water that nearly 40 million people across the West depend on.
The decision likely is the last stop for a torturous legal battle that dates back to 2013. As the law stands, farmers have a guaranteed right to water delivery but not a special claim above other users like homes and geothermal plants…
The case’s legal questions dealt with intricate water law, but the stakes were high. If Abatti and the other small group of farmers had been ceded control of some of the oldest, largest rights to Colorado River water supply, the ripple effects could have affected Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and rural users across several states.
IID board President James Hanks said the decision “brings closure to this dispute and clarifies certain misunderstandings about IID’s water rights.”
He said while “IID has always agreed that agricultural water users in Imperial Valley have a legally enforceable right to service by the district,” so do all water users in the district’s service area, thanks to water rights that IID holds in trust for its customers…
IID board Vice President J.B. Hamby said the decision allows the district to focus on ensuring supply for all its customers both now and in the long-term, including “preparing for critical drought discussions on the Colorado River.”
Abatti wanted the court to vacate the judgement of the Fourth Appellate Court which ruled mostly in favor of IID, determining the water did not belong to the landowners, only the right of water service.
Abatti began the suit in 2013 after the IID instituted its Equitable Distribution Plan (EDP). In light of the continuing drought in the Western states, the IID needed a tool to ration Colorado water if needed. Abatti believed the IID had overstepped its jurisdiction and took the District to the Superior Court where Judge Brooks Anderholt ruled in favor of Abatti.
The IID appealed, and the Fourth Appellate Court’s three-paneled judges reversed Anderholt’s decision.
Abatti argued in his brief to the Supreme Court that landowners have actual water rights per the 1902 Federal Reclamation Act, not just the right to water service. The Abatti brief said his claim is not a new one but has long been protected under federal law.
He also argued that the Imperial Valley farmers and landowners have witnessed a loss of property value since the Fourth Appellate Court’s decision. According to the brief, farmers can’t make produce or field crop contracts, which are worth billions, because they cannot guarantee water delivery. The ruling, according to the brief, has reduced production and investment back into the land, a detriment, Abatti said, to the Nation.
The US Supreme Court did not validate Abatti’s claim by letting the lower court’s verdict stand.
Birdsong fills the air on a sunny May morning along Severance’s cottonwood-lined main street – but it’s soon drowned out by the roar of a backhoe.
The former farm town is replacing crumbling old water lines that serve a rapidly growing population. Severance, which is about an hour’s drive north of Denver, has seen its population double in the past five years, as home buyers thwarted by soaring prices in larger Front Range cities look for more affordable options.
“(We’re) a very quickly growing community in northern Colorado, I think a really good community, but definitely have seen a lot of growth,” said the town’s community development director, Mitch Nelson.
One of the biggest challenges Severance faces as its population climbs toward 8,000 is securing enough water for continued growth.
That wasn’t something Severance had to worry about just a decade ago. Now, as drought strains much of the state and tens of thousands of newcomers move to the bustling Front Range each year, places like Severance are thinking about growth – and water usage – in ways they never have before.
“In the past, the town’s future goals, from a land use standpoint, weren’t discussed alongside water conservation,” Nelson said. “That was the first step.”
As growing towns compare their existing water supplies to the needs of the new residents and businesses coming their way, they expect they’ll need more water. But figuring out where this new water will come from is the question. Large cities on the Front Range have senior water rights and long-established supplies, whereas small towns like Severance usually don’t.
Severance gets its water from the Northern Weld County Water District, which in turn draws on the Colorado-Big Thompson project. The CBT, as it’s called, delivers water to more than 1 million Front Range residents each year. That water comes from the state’s Western Slope, where snowmelt in the headwaters of the Colorado River is diverted through a tunnel through the Continental Divide.
However, the cost of one unit of CBT water is approaching $65,000, double the cost just a few years ago, thanks to rapidly escalating demand and shrinking supplies due to a 20-year drought. A unit, which is enough to serve two average households in northern Colorado for one year, sold for $1,500 in 1990.
The burgeoning costs mean that towns have a financial incentive to conserve their existing water instead of simply trying to buy more. Lindsay Rogers, the Colorado Basin program manager for the WaterNow Alliance, says the choice is obvious…
Conserving water also is cheaper for homeowners; their rates don’t have to be increased to cover expensive new water sources. But conservation alone can’t meet all of a town’s future needs, Nelson said.
“You have to do both,” he said. “You have to acquire the potable water because that is what people use to drink, and reduce the usage of water for irrigation.”
That reduction in irrigation water is mostly going to happen in new developments, as Severance and similar towns work to integrate water planning into their land use planning.
Making growth water-smart from the start provides more bang for the buck…
Colorado towns can get help with planning from the state, and through such nonprofits as the Babbitt Center, the WaterNow Alliance and the Sonoran Institute. Severance participated in WaterNow’s training last winter and will get ongoing support from the group’s experts. In January, town officials approved an updated comprehensive plan.
The final plan, which will guide Severance’s land use code, incorporates water conservation throughout and is in line with state objectives for water planning. The plan identifies such opportunities as adopting water-efficient regulations for landscaping, requiring developers to secure their own water supplies for new subdivisions, and working with the Northern Weld County Water District to develop a fee structure that will encourage conservation…
Other small Front Range towns, such as Frederick, Johnstown and Evans, have created similar maps and plans. They’ve implemented water efficiency improvements and passed conservation ordinances. And they’ve bought out farms to use the water rights for more subdivisions.
Nelson said Severance is trying to avoid that.
“I think the goal is to maintain those historic uses and not dry this area up,” he said, “but allow for small scale farming all the way up to the standard agriculture operations we’ve seen historically.”
Much of the groundwater pumped up from the Denver basin in northern and central El Paso County flows down Monument or Fountain creeks, never to be seen again after it’s been used and treated once.
Colorado Springs Utilities, Monument and six groundwater districts want to see that water returned back to homes and businesses to be reused and to help ease the pressure on groundwater.
The groundwater that’s already flowed through showers, sinks and toilets once could potentially be treated and reused twice, and that could help the diminishing aquifer last longer, said Jenny Bishop, a senior project engineer with the water resources group within Colorado Springs Utilities.
Reusing the water could reduce the amount of fresh groundwater that must be pumped annually, limit the need for new wells, give districts more time to pursue additional water rights and make the most of a finite resource, she said. The deeper groundwater in El Paso County is not replenished by rain or other natural sources.
While Colorado Springs Utilities does not rely on Denver basin groundwater, future water reuse projects identified by an ongoing study involving Monument and the groundwater districts could rely on Utilities infrastructure. In recent years, Utilities has also started to focus more on effective water use across the county.
Utilities “recognizes that long-term water security for the Pikes Peak region depends on the efficient use and reuse of reusable water supplies,” Bishop said.
The Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority Regional Water Reuse Study is going to determine how and where groundwater could be diverted from Monument or Fountain creeks and returned to the water providers. It’s possible the water could be diverted below Colorado Springs and may require new water storage, such as a reservoir or a tank, she said.
Larger projects that could serve multiple water providers, such as Tri-View and Forest Lakes metro districts, are expected to be efficient, Bishop said. The study could also recommend more than one project to recapture water, she said.
Not all of the groundwater that is pumped up from the ground will be available for reuse, because some of it goes into outdoor irrigation, some is used up by thirsty residents, some is lost in the treatment process and some is lost to evaporation in the creeks, among other points of loss. But the water returned to districts could be substantial…
The following water providers are participating the water reuse study although not all of them would benefit from groundwater flowing back to be used again. Some are interested in portions of the project like additional water storage
Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District
Town of Monument
Triview Metropolitan District
Forest Lakes Metropolitan District
Cherokee Metropolitan District
Donala Water and Sanitation District
Security Water District
Colorado Springs Utilities…
The $100,000 study to identify the projects that would allow the most water reuse may be finished by the end of the year. The document is expected to project cost estimates for construction and operation of the projects. The work could include new water storage, such as reservoirs.
Funding, permitting and designing the projects is expected to take a few years as well, Bishop said.
American Lithium Corp. (“American Lithium” or the “Company”) (TSX-V:LI | OTCQB: LIACF | Frankfurt:5LA1) is pleased to provide details of a recent breakthrough on process development at its Tonopah Lithium Claims Project (“TLC”) located close to Tonopah, Nevada.
Ongoing process work at Hazen Research Inc. has shown that roasting TLC lithium bearing claystones with sulfate and chloride salts, followed by water leaching, results in 82% of lithium being extracted with a significantly lower impurity load as compared to acid leaching.
This alternative processing method will be investigated further at both Hazen Research Inc. in Golden, Colorado (“Hazen”) and at TECMMINE in Lima, Peru (“TECMMINE”).
Test work at Hazen has so far utilized non-upgraded TLC claystones. Additional work will also commence on mechanically upgraded TLC claystones with even better results anticipated.
Full roasting / water leaching results will be compared to results for sulfuric acid leaching to ascertain which method is best from an economic and environmental perspective.
TLC claystone mineralization continues to demonstrate exceptional ability to be concentrated and amenable to multiple process options with lithium carbonate having already been produced.
This latest round of process work is focused on optimizing flow-sheet design to deliver strong environmental and economic benefits to enable a robust Preliminary Economic Assessment.
Dr. Laurence Stefan, COO of American Lithium, states, “The early success of roasting demonstrates once again the robust nature of the TLC lithium resource and its processing versatility. This new metallurgical approach opens the door widely to produce either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide or both from the TLC project. The extremely low level of impurities in the leachate provides many advantages over the successful sulfuric acid leaching technique that has been the focus to date. We are excited to investigate the roasting route further and will be comparing the overall environmental and economic profiles of each route to make the best decision for the project moving forward.”
American Lithium Provides TLC Process Update:
The TLC project has previously shown that its Li-rich claystones are amenable to rapid sulfuric acid leaching, with lithium extraction in sulfate solution reaching 92% in 10 minutes, for some of the samples. While the flowsheet for sulfuric acid leaching has been successful and is being further optimized, an alternative roasting / water leaching technique has demonstrated early success and will be investigated with additional laboratory test work.
Experiments performed at Hazen Research Inc. in Golden, Colorado, demonstrate that roasting the lithium bearing claystones at 900°C with sulfate and chloride salts (sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, and/or gypsum – calcium sulfate dihydrate) and then leaching in 60°C water for 2 hours, results in 82% of the lithium being extracted into aqueous solution. This roasting process followed by water leaching not only increased the final pH of the solution to 8.5, making the eventual final lithium carbonate or hydroxide precipitation much easier, but also produced an astonishingly low level of impurities, when compared to sulfuric acid leaching.
Heavy elements such as iron, aluminum, and manganese in the leachate are below detection limit (<10 ppm), with magnesium extraction below 1% (54 ppm) and calcium extraction below 3% (500 ppm). As expected, sodium and potassium are leached in greater quantities, but still at manageable levels (Na 78%; K 52% extraction in aqueous solution). Test work at TECMMINE shows a good rubidium extraction of 63%. The high extraction of potassium and rubidium presents the opportunity to produce saleable by-products such as potash as fertilizer and rubidium hydroxide for industrial applications. The overall impurities level in the aqueous solution obtained to date, through roasting and water leaching, presents a legitimate alternative route to producing battery-grade lithium chemicals from TLC claystone mineralization.
Additional test work is underway to build on these initial results and further investigate the roasting process-route at Hazen and at TECMMINE and the results will be fully compared to sulfuric acid leaching once sufficient data is compiled. American Lithium plans to compare the roasting option to acid leaching both in terms of capex, opex, environmental footprint and economic performance.
As previously announced on March 23, 2021, TLC claystones can be upgraded by up to 66%, in terms of lithium grades, using hydrocyclones and centrifuges. The preliminary test work on roasting was performed on non-upgraded claystones and further progress and efficiencies are anticipated from testing upgraded samples.
In parallel, hydrochloric acid leaching test work has started with TECMMINE. TECMMINE was instrumental in optimizing the leaching and precipitation of battery grade lithium from the Company’s high-grade Falchani project in Peru and will be a key player in the optimization of flowsheets for TLC.
Dr. Laurence Stefan, COO of American Lithium, concluded “As we continue to optimize processes for the extraction of lithium from TLC claystone mineralization, we will be comparing overall environmental and economic performance for all relevant routes. American Lithium is fortunate that we have so many excellent options from which to produce battery grade lithium compounds from TLC which will enable us to select the best overall route for feasibility and to have other options if needed in the future. We currently anticipate finalizing this process this Fall.”
A heat dome occurs when the atmosphere traps hot ocean air like a lid or cap.
Summertime means hot weather — sometimes dangerously hot — and extreme heat waves have become more frequent in recent decades. Sometimes, the scorching heat is ensnared in what is called a heat dome. This happens when strong, high-pressure atmospheric conditions combine with influences from La Niña, creating vast areas of sweltering heat that gets trapped under the high-pressure “dome.”
A team of scientists funded by the NOAA MAPP Program investigated what triggers heat domes and found the main cause was a strong change (or gradient) in ocean temperatures from west to east in the tropical Pacific Ocean during the preceding winter.
Imagine a swimming pool when the heater is turned on — temperatures rise quickly in the areas surrounding the heater jets, while the rest of the pool takes longer to warm up. If one thinks of the Pacific as a very large pool, the western Pacific’s temperatures have risen over the past few decades as compared to the eastern Pacific, creating a strong temperature gradient, or pressure differences that drive wind, across the entire ocean in winter. In a process known as convection, the gradient causes more warm air, heated by the ocean surface, to rise over the western Pacific, and decreases convection over the central and eastern Pacific.
As prevailing winds move the hot air east, the northern shifts of the jet stream trap the air and move it toward land, where it sinks, resulting in heat waves.
The multitude of studies and reports about the impacts of climate change on western water and the Colorado River Basin increasingly come to parallel, if not precisely the same, conclusions: the future will be warmer and drier, with less water. The studies also show that the process of warming and aridification is happening faster than anticipated.
In 2008, Science Magazine published a short article claiming that the concept of “stationarity” in water management was dead. Stationarity—a fundamental concept in water resource management and planning— is the “idea that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability”. The envelope of variability, however, is definitely changing.
But this is a difficult principal to let go of. It loosens the moorings of decades of water supply thinking.
While many water managers and policy professionals agree that stationarity is no longer valid, I wonder how well they understand its full implications. Many still assess temperatures and precipitation today as compared to “normal”. That “normal” is based on the concept of stationarity.
A 2019 report by the Colorado River Research Group, Thinking About Risk in the Colorado River, emphasized the loss of stationarity and the growing likelihood of what are called “Black Swan” events. These are events that fall outside the scope of normal expectations and planning efforts, thereby inflicting an unexpected shock to the system. While the current southwestern drought, possibly a megadrought, could be called a Black Swan, it’s more likely to become the norm than to disappear.
With the advent of increasing warming and aridification due to greenhouse gas emissions, any past certainty of droughts eventually breaking is now in question. We are in a time that climate scientists Brad Udall has labeled “The New Abnormal”.
The Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University recently released a new white paper, Alternative Management Paradigms for the future of the Colorado and Green Rivers (White Paper #6). This study takes a look at the future of water supplies in the Colorado Basin, using science as opposed to aspirational politics. We covered the report in more detail in a series of blogs titled, “Colorado River Futures”, which includes an overview, a “changed river” edition, and a “climate and the river” edition.
The study begins with the statement, “Our ability to sustainably manage the Colorado River is clearly in doubt”.
While we have responded to recent crises by developing new planning and management techniques, the report warns that “A gradual and incremental approach to adaptation… is unlikely to meet the challenges of the future.”
Simply put, we need to change how we think about the Colorado River and water supply in the southwest. The paradigms of the past no longer suffice.
The paper states “The Colorado River can be sustainably managed only if consumptive uses are matched to available supply. This will require Upper Basin limitations and substantially larger Lower Basin reductions than are currently envisaged.” The paper suggests that by capping Upper Basin use to 4 MAF or less and reducing Lower Basin use by 1.4 to 3 MAF critical storage levels in Lakes Powell and Mead might be maintained.
Across the basin, individual states are thinking about how they can address their climate and water supply challenges. Renegotiations of the 2007 Interim Guidelines are in their nascent stage. This round of discussions will be different from 2007 as the rights of the 29 Native American tribes, along with those of the environment, will be at the table. The tribes hold as much as 20% of the Basin’s water rights, 2.9 MAF. That’s more than Arizona’s compact allotment and a right that has never been included in basin wide agreements. This more inclusive and collaborative approach to negotiations is essential to address the serious challenges that are facing all of us.
Water conservation and evolving technologies will become increasingly important. But we need more than that. We also need to shift our perspectives, our ways of seeing and imagining water and rivers in the Colorado Basin.
I suggest that we think about water and rivers as Native Americans do, as sacred. Water IS life.
Whether or not we use water is not the question here, but our attitudes and how we use it are. Water should be used with respect, with reverence, with gratitude and within limits. You only take what you need, and never so much as to impair the integrity of the rivers and watersheds that supply us with that water.
We already have an idea of water as sacred codified in Colorado and Western water law in the concept of the Duty of Water.
The Water Rights Handbook for Colorado Conservation Professionals defines the Duty of Water as “The amount of water that through careful management and use, without wastage, is reasonably required to be applied to a tract of land for a length of time that is adequate to produce the maximum amount of crops that are ordinarily grown there.” If you don’t need the water, you have no right to it.
As irrigation technology and infrastructure improve, less water is required for transport and other “non-consumptive” uses. Less water is needed at the point of diversion and can be left in the river.
Seeing water as sacred also means that we must not regard it strictly as a commodity.
Water is a “natural resource” for our use and benefit, but water has worth far beyond base economics. This worth includes its spiritual, cultural and environmental value. While markets and economics do play a role in water supply management, seeing water solely as a tradeable commodity diminishes its true value.
We need to see and think of rivers and their watersheds as a whole and integrated system, rather than parceling them into separate disconnected “resource” and jurisdictional bins.
To do so, it is critical that we rely on the most up to date science. Science reveals the situation we are in, in all its complexity, uncertainty and without judgement. And we need to pair that modern science with the traditional knowledge that has guided water management for centuries. It is up to us to do the right thing, being clear-eyed and honest. If we hope to adapt and gain true resilience we need to change how we perceive, plan and use water.
Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation
Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.
Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.
Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.
River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.
River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.
“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”
The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.
“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.
That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.
Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.
River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.
“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.
“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.
Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.
“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”
What are climate tipping points and how will we know when they have been breached? A collection of climate scientists provide insight to these fundamental questions by looking at a series of potential tipping points around the world in the second episode of the Mostly Climate podcast, hosted by the Met Office.
The Met Office’s Dr Doug McNeall is the host of the podcast. He said: “The phrase ‘tipping point’ was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell journalist and author who published his first book “The Tipping Point” in 2000. Here he explained how small changes – spreading ideas, messages, behaviours and products – can make a big difference.”
At first the inspiration for the book came from reduced crime rates in New York City, but later expanded to explain similar phenomena in epidemiology. Doug McNeall added: “Tipping points have since been applied to other areas of science and they have become a large area of research in climate science, whereby small changes can make a big difference to Earth’s subsystems, such the Amazon rainforest or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which includes the Gulf Stream.”
In 2018 and 2020, the IPCC Special Reports suggested that tipping points could be exceeded even if warming was contained between 1-2ᵒC. Professor Tim Lenton – a world-renowned expert on tipping points from the University of Exeter – is a major contributor to the podcast. He highlights that with the probability of crossing tipping points, evidence is mounting they could be more likely to ‘tip’ than previously thought and more attention needs to be given to these high-impact events.
Professor Tim Lenton breaks up Earth’s system into three categories:
Ice, including elements such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet;
Ocean and Atmospheric Circulation, which includes the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or Monsoonal systems;
Biosphere, which includes the Amazon rainforest, or coral reefs.
Tipping points are often considered in isolation, whereby typically parameters are changed very slowly and at some point you reach a critical threshold where the system can collapse. But this isn’t realistic according to Johannes Lohman, due to a phenomenon called ‘rate-induced tipping’. Here we consider that climate change is unfolding at an accelerated pace. Also, there may be other types of tipping points at play. As a result, a system could tip before reaching a critical threshold.
Johannes explains: “Rate induced tipping necessitates that the rate of climate change needs to be limited, as well as the absolute amount, since a critical threshold may not be relevant in practice, if parameters and climate change is not slow to change. Due to the chaotic nature of complex systems, there is no well-defined critical rate of change for any one element, severely limiting the predictability of tipping points.”
Next week, in our series on tipping elements on the Met Office news blog we will focus on The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
The Met Office’s second episode of Mostly Climate can be found here.