Climate change has increased concern over possible large and rapid changes in the physical climate system, which includes Earth's atmosphere, land surfaces, and oceans.
Some of these changes could occur within a few decades or even years, leaving little time for society and ecosystems to adapt.
A new report from the US National Research Council extends this idea of abrupt climate change, stating that even steady, gradual change in the physical climate system can have abrupt impacts elsewhere -- in human infrastructure and ecosystems for example -- if critical thresholds are crossed.
The report calls for the development of an early warning system that could help society better anticipate sudden changes and emerging impacts.
"Research has helped us begin to distinguish more imminent threats from those that are less likely to happen this century," said James W.C. White, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.
"Evaluating climate changes and impacts in terms of their potential magnitude and the likelihood they will occur will help policymakers and communities make informed decisions about how to prepare for or adapt to them."