Explainer: What Is a Tipping Point, and Why Should I Care?

Our ability to understand and act thoughtfully around this single concept could determine the fate of life on Earth.

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Photo © iStockphoto.com | ThomasVogel
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A wildfire is a classic example of a tipping point that moves a system into a new state of being. Photo by Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest (Flickr/Creative Commons).
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In this illustration, the ball is the current state of the system. Basin A is deeper and wider than Basin B, suggesting a more resilient regime. If the system is sufficiently disrupted, the ball may pass the Tipping Point into a new regime depicted by Basin B. Note that because Basin B is shallower and more narrow than Basin A, the ball will more easily escape it to return to Basin A or move onto another regime.
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Although we may not have actually passed tipping points, planetary boundaries defined by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre suggest we could be headed in that direction for biodiversity loss, nitrogen flows, phosphorus flows, land system change and climate change. Photo courtesy of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
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Protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd suggest we may be on the brink of entering a new regime of racial equality. Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue from Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0
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A forest may regrow in the wake of a fire, but it’s not the same forest it was before. Photo courtesy of Timo Newton-Syms from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
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