The Anthropocene is the name that scientists have proposed to give to the current era in the history of the Earth, one that is driven by human effects such as climate change. In their study, theoretical physicist Professor Orfeu Bertolami of the University of Porto and his colleagues modeled the arrival of the Anthropocene as a so-called phase transition. The concept of phase transitions is something that the average person could associate with materials – such as how water changes phase from liquid to solid when it freezes, or from liquid to gas when it evaporates. Other systems may also experience phase transitions as well, however. As far as the Earth system goes, a predetermined climate produces a regular pattern of seasons and weather, while a phase transition would lead to different climate and new patterns as a result.
In the past, changes in climate have been caused by factors such as changes in the Earth’s orbit, or periods of intense volcanic activity.
The future of the climate system, however, depends heavily on the nature of human activity – especially the extent of our greenhouse gases – over the next few decades.
To explore all the possibilities, the researchers used a mathematical tool called a logistic map, which is particularly useful when considering variables that can grow, but which also have a natural limit.
Logistics maps, for example, are often used to model the growth of animal populations – while they may continue to give birth, maximum population sizes tend to be limited by factors such as predators and the availability of resources such as food.
Similarly, humanity now has the ability to continue to increase its impact on the environment, but will have to stop someday, either because the Earth reaches its population limit or because we are maximizing our potential carbon release activities.
The team used its logistics map to explore how our coal production could evolve based on a variety of factors such as population size, carbon reduction strategies and technological advances – and how the Earth’s climate will respond.
At best, the researchers found, the Earth’s climate will stabilize at a new, higher temperature than before, when humanity reaches the limit of its carbon production.
That would not be good for us – the rise in temperature will cause sea levels to rise, submerging some of the world’s busiest areas today.
This will be accompanied by an increase in extreme weather events.
On the other hand, however, the climate system would at least be stable – while warmer, the Anthropocene would have a climate that resembled those of the past, full of regular and repeatable weather patterns.
The researchers’ worst case scenario, meanwhile, is chaos – both figuratively and, from a mathematical point of view, literally.
A truly chaotic system has no repeating patterns and no equilibrium point around which it settles, and so a chaotic climate would have seasons whose nature would change from decade to decade – or, worse yet, perhaps even annually.
Years of calm weather in a chaotic world would give way to those afflicted by frequent periods of extreme weather, for example, while the average world temperature could change abruptly in directions it would be almost impossible to predict.
As Prof Bertolami told Live Science: “Chaotic behavior means that it will be impossible to predict the behavior of the Earth system in the future – even if we know with great certainty its current state.
“It will mean that any ability to control and move the Earth’s system to a state of equilibrium that favors the habitability of the biosphere will be lost.”
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According to the researchers, if the Earth’s atmosphere exceeds a certain threshold temperature, it could cause a positive reaction cycle from which a chaotic outcome would be inevitable.
Prof Bertolami concluded: “The implications of climate change are well known – droughts, heat waves, extreme events, etc.”
“If the Earth System enters the realm of chaotic behavior, we will lose all hope of somehow fixing the problem.”
A preview of the article, which has not yet been revised, can be read further the archive repository.