Feedback Loops

Thomas Crowther

Burning fossil fuels quickly moves carbon that was once stored underground into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and sets new climate cycles into motion.

For instance, as permafrost thaws, microorganisms become active, causing them to release carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, which traps more heat and accelerates warming. This is an example of a positive feedback loop, a vicious cycle that increases warming. But not all feedback loops are damaging.

A negative feedback loop is a virtuous cycle that can cool the climate. For example, warmer temperatures can fuel plant growth that absorbs some of the excess carbon, helping to restabilize the climate. Yet when humans damage ecosystems, we risk turning a virtuous cycle into a vicious one.

Degraded, dry forests capture less carbon, which contributes to warming and makes forests even drier. By cutting back on fossil fuels and protecting ecosystems, we can work with beneficial feedback loops that reduce atmospheric carbon—limiting how much heat the atmosphere traps and slowing climate change.

Pamela EA Climate Words Feedback Loops

A geyser's feedback loop involves a cyclical and self-regulating process driven by the interplay of water, heat, and pressure beneath the Earth's surface. Uyuni, Bolivia, 2021.
Photography By Pamela EA