Earthworms Illustrate a Climate Tipping Point

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” introduced a generation of future environmentalists to the idea of tipping points in which the warming of the planet leads to destabilizing shifts that produce even more warming, such that climate change eventually becomes a runaway process.

Physical examples include the ice sheets in Greenland, as well as those in Antarctica. As more and more big chunks of ice break off, they float to warmer seas and melt, never to return. This in turn decreases the Earth’s ability to reflect back some of the sun’s rays, leading to more warming.

Another example is the increase in water vapor in the air due to higher average temperatures. Beyond a certain point, water vapor itself becomes a major and uncontainable greenhouse gas of its own.

Meanwhile, ecosystems are at risk as mass extinction continues unabated.

Most complex of all are the tipping points that involve a relationship between ecological and physical climate forces. In fact, these are so complex that many of the risks are coming as a complete surprise to scientists.

Case in point: Climate change is causing earthworms to migrate to more northerly latitudes than they’ve ever been before. And scientists are realizing these invasive worms are burrowing their way into vegetation in the northern forests that long served as a carbon sink, releasing an undetermined amount of carbon into the atmosphere. The effects of this cannot yet be fully predicted.

Arguably these organic carbon sinks are the true ticking time bombs because of the delicate nature of ecological balance and how suddenly it can collapse. Many existing natural carbon sinks from forests to wetlands to ocean algal colonies are at risk in the same way as the worm-threatened forests.

As another example, consider the extremely fragile balance in the Arctic with its weather, naturally low biodiversity and easily disturbed physical features, such as permafrost. Warming affects vegetation and insect behavior, leading to a browning of the Arctic. The two interlinked risks are the impending ecological collapse and the release of carbon stored in living vegetation as well as the runaway temperature increase melting the permafrost, which also serves as a bulwark against huge quantities of trapped greenhouse gases.

It’s complicated. But in another way, it’s not. We need to take drastic action now because we’re approaching multiple tipping points. Our planet is right at the edge, and when we lose our balance we’re going to go down hard. You don’t need to be an earthworm expert or read ice core samples to understand that.

Photo credit: PhotographyFirm/Getty Images

70 comments

Peter B
Peter B7 days ago

thanks for posting

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David C
David C10 days ago

thank you

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David C
David C10 days ago

Earthworms are awesome

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David C
David C10 days ago

dangerous world future we are creating

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David C
David C10 days ago

Thank you

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David C
David C10 days ago

thanks, love earthworms

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Carole R
Carole R11 days ago

So many frightening changes.

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Irene S
Irene S11 days ago

I´m a gardener and always hated to hurt earthworms during work. But the last two years I had no reason to worry, nearly no worms at all. What a horrible loss!

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Manojkumar Bhoyar

Thanks

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Leo Custer
Leo Custer12 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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