Climate feedback loops are processes that either amplify or diminish the effects of climate factors. Essentially, they make the impacts of key climate factors stronger or weaker, starting a chain reaction that repeats again and again.

What is a Feedback Loop?

There are negative and positive climate feedback loops. A positive feedback loop accelerates a temperature rise, while a negative feedback loop decelerates it. 

There are a number of positive feedback loops in the climate system. An example is melting ice. Because ice is light-coloured and reflective, much of the sunlight that hits it bounces back into space, which limits the amount of warming it causes. However, as the planet gets hotter, ice melts, revealing the darker-coloured land or water below. This results in more of the sun’s energy being absorbed, leading to more warming, which leads to more ice melting- and so on. 

An example of a negative feedback loop is if the increase in temperature increases the amount of cloud cover. The increased cloud thickness or amount could reduce incoming solar radiation and limit warming. However, it is not clear, if additional cloud cover occurs, at what latitudes and at what times it might occur. It’s also not clear what types of clouds might be created- thick low clouds would have a stronger ability to block sunlight than extensive high (cirrus) type clouds.

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Earth’s Own Feedback Loop

Other climate feedback loops are discussed below: 

Negative feedback loops are vital in the global climate system. Without the regulating action of the negative feedback loop, a positive loop can spiral out of control, creating irreversible changes in the climate system. This is called a “tipping point.” 

Some examples of tipping points are discussed below:

Feedback loops such as these are complex in themselves and even more complex when considered as part of an integrated global climate system. Some are already at work, while others have yet to kick in. Others still – both positive and negative – may yet be discovered. 

Featured image by: Sravanthi Simhadri