Of course, we now know that as we mess around with our climate and destroy forests, coral reefs, and ocean chemistry, we run the risk of breaking these systems. Break them beyond a certain point, and they can no longer recover or function normally. Scientists refer to these thresholds as tipping points.
It is estimated that if we go below 80% forest cover in the Amazon, traditional weather patterns will shut off and the forest there will eventually convert to savanna. Scientists are studying how the Gulf Stream, an Atlantic Ocean current that shapes weather patterns on four continents, is changing, and what happens when glaciers and ice sheets break off and melt. There are huge questions around impending shifts in ocean currents that have kept weather stable, channeled global trade, and supported ocean phenomena that have given rise to some of the world’s richest fisheries.
E.O. Wilson’s famous species-area curve relates the abundance of species to the total area of the system where the species live. It posits that once you move past a certain point of decrease in an area’s strength and size, the abundance of species goes into free fall, and many species that a place supports are lost. So understanding tipping points is a fundamental part of our work as conservationists, as is intervening to keep ecosystems resilient enough not to reach those tipping points.