Tipping Points in the Earth System – an icon of climate change?

tipping pts in the earth system

Martin Kemp writes in Nature – Science in culture: Inventing an icon

Any public campaign benefits from having an iconic image — something that captures the essence of the message and engraves it indelibly on our memories. But it is almost impossible to predict which images will actually stick, so creating one on demand is extraordinarily difficult. …

Even so, finding an iconic image was one of the goals of a meeting, Changing the Climate, held in Oxford, UK, on 11 and 12 September. Researchers and practitioners of the visual, literary, musical and performing arts came together to publicize the predicted perils of climate change, and there was much talk about a memorable image that would encapsulate the initiative…

The data must come from the best science available, but the presentation for maximum impact is a matter of invention in art and design. Of the images produced by the scientists, one in particular seemed to have the potential to combine iconicity with complexity. This is the ‘Tipping Points Map’ devised by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and research director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK. This global map, shown here, outlines what Schellnhuber has identified as regions where the balance of particular systems has reached the critical point at which potentially irreversible change is imminent, or actually occurring.




In its present state, the map has the character of a diagram synthesizing scientific predictions. It is still short of those elusive features that make an icon, and its language remains quite specialist. This is where the visual and verbal inventors need to step in, to take Schellnhuber’s neat and ingenious graphic on to the next level of accessibility and memorability. The Oxford meeting provided access to creative people with the right range of artistic skills to hone the image into a potential icon.

The map could function as a poster, as an immediately recognizable symbol for a campaign, as a memory device in all kinds of education, as the map for a series of interactive explorations on the web and other digital platforms, and as the central image for media coverage. Its graphic density in its present form dictates that it cannot function well on small scales. Perhaps a more symbolic version is needed.

Schellnhuber’s map can potentially be developed into a useful image for debates about climate change. What no one can tell, however skilfully the map is refined, is whether it will achieve the levels of indelibility that will give it iconic status.

A Guardian article Pressure points and a BBC article Earth warned on tipping points describes Schellnhuber’s tipping points.

4 thoughts on “Tipping Points in the Earth System – an icon of climate change?”

  1. I read the article in Nature (437-7063) 27 Oct 2005.
    Schellnhuber’s Tipping Point Map is a great reference tool; but it misses the mark as an icon. An icon should have instant recognition without the need of explanation.

    Did you consider a see-saw “tipping” greatly to one side with natural process on the losing side and man-made effects on the other? Or any icon utilizing the see-saw to represent the “tipping points”?

  2. I agree that the map is not ideal in that it is not instantly recognizable, particularly with regard to the concept of tipping points, used in this context, i.e. activities and events that have the capacity to force the global system past thresholds. In that respect, the see-saw may not be ideal either, in that it visually implies a reversibility, which is not the case in the sort of positive feedback loops created when thresholds in the climate system are crossed.

    I unfortunately cannot think of an alternative, but something that depicts a sort of “point of no return” may be more aligned with the message.

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