Despite evidence from a number of Earth systems that abrupt temporal changes known as regime shifts are important, their nature, scale and mechanisms remain poorly documented and understood. Applying principal component analysis, change-point analysis and a sequential t-test analysis of regime shifts to 72 time series, we confirm that the 1980s regime shift represented a major change in the Earth's biophysical systems from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and occurred at slightly different times around the world. Using historical climate model simulations from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) and statistical modelling of historical temperatures, we then demonstrate that this event was triggered by rapid global warming from anthropogenic plus natural forcing, the latter associated with the recovery from the El Chichón volcanic eruption. The shift in temperature that occurred at this time is hypothesized as the main forcing for a cascade of abrupt environmental changes. Within the context of the last century or more, the 1980s event was unique in terms of its global scope and scale; our observed consequences imply that if unavoidable natural events such as major volcanic eruptions interact with anthropogenic warming unforeseen multiplier effects may occur.