McCormick professor studies climate tipping points

Emily Chin, Assistant Campus Editor

McCormick Prof. Mary Silber is using math to determine whether it’s possible to find tipping points at which Earth’s climate will be on the edge of abrupt transitions.

A tipping point is a threshold that creates an irreversible and significant change when crossed. It fits with bifurcation theory, which explains how a small, smooth change can cause a sudden, dramatic one, she said.

“The thing about tipping points is that they sneak up on you,” she said in a news release. “And they can have very dramatic effects.”

Climate is complex, which could make modeling uncertainties and predicting Earth’s tipping point impossible, Silber said. However, she does not want to ignore the problem, and she and her research group are working toward identifying the qualitative phenomena associated with climate.

“I used to study natural patterns in well-controlled settings, like laboratory experiments,” Silber said in the release. “Climate is a problem where we don’t necessarily know the full set of equations. It’s messy. It’s just whatever nature gives you.”

In another study, Silber used the bifurcation theory to look at feedback loops between plants and water. She said the patterns observed there might show more about the sudden transitions associated with climate change.

Email: [email protected]