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Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the earth's climate system

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Rial, J., Pielke, R., Beniston, M., Claussen, M., Canadell, J., Cox, P., et al. (2004). Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the earth's climate system. Climatic Change, 65(1-2), 11-38. doi:10.1023/B:CLIM.0000037493.89489.3f.

The Earth's climate system is highly nonlinear: inputs and outputs are not proportional, change is often episodic and abrupt, rather than slow and gradual, and multiple equilibria are the norm. While this is widely accepted, there is a relatively poor understanding of the different types of nonlinearities, how they manifest under various conditions, and whether they reflect a climate system driven by astronomical forcings, by internal feedbacks, or by a combination of both. In this paper, after a brief tutorial on the basics of climate nonlinearity, we provide a number of illustrative examples and highlight key mechanisms that give rise to nonlinear behavior, address scale and methodological issues, suggest a robust alternative to prediction that is based on using integrated assessments within the framework of vulnerability studies and, lastly, recommend a number of research priorities and the establishment of education programs in Earth Systems Science. It is imperative that the Earth's climate system research community embraces this nonlinear paradigm if we are to move forward in the assessment of the human influence on climate.