Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The climate record for the past 100,000 years clearly indicates that the climate system has undergone periodic--and often extreme--shifts, sometimes in as little as a decade or less. The causes of abrupt climate changes have not been clearly established, but the triggering of events is likely to be the result of multiple natural processes. This report looks at the current scientific evidence and theoretical understanding to describe what is currently known about abrupt climate change, including patterns and magnitudes, mechanisms, and probability of occurrence. It identifies critical knowledge gaps concerning the potential for future abrupt changes (including those aspects of change most important to society and economies), outlines a research strategy to close those gaps, surveys the history of climate change, and makes a series of specific recommendations for the future.

Key Messages

  • Abrupt climate changes in the last few thousand years generally have been less severe and affected smaller areas than some of the changes further back in the past. Nonetheless, evidence shows that rapid climate changes have affected societies and ecosystems substantially, especially when the changes that brought persistent droughts occurred in regions with human settlements.
  • Increased knowledge is the best way to improve the effectiveness of response, and thus that research into the causes, patterns, and likelihood of abrupt climate change can help reduce vulnerabilities and increase our adaptive capabilities.
  • The earth's climate system is characterized by change on all time and space scales, and some of the changes are abrupt even relative to the short time scales of relevance to human societies.
  • There is no reason to believe that abrupt climate changes will not occur again.