National Academies Synthesis Report

The long-awaited NAS synthesis report on surface temperature reconstructions over the last few millennia is being released today. It’s a long (155 page) report and will take a while to digest, but we applaud the committee for having tried to master a dense thicket of publications and materials on the subject over a relatively short time.

It is probably expecting too much for one report might to put to rest all the outstanding issues in a still-developing field. And given the considerable length of the report, we have little doubt that keen contrarians will be able to mine the report for skeptical-sounding sentences and cherry-pick the findings. However, it is the big picture conclusions that have the most relevance for the lay public and policymakers, and it is re-assuring (and unsurprising) to see that the panel has found reason to support the key mainstream findings of past research, including points that we have highlighted previously:

1) The authors of the report accurately report the considerable uncertainties that were acknowledged by seminal earlier studies. In particular, Mann et al 1999, which was entitled (emphasis added) “Northern Hemisphere Temperatures During the Past Millennium: Inferences, Uncertainties, and Limitations, emphasized the uncertainties and caveats, particularly with regard to reconstructing large-scale surface temperature patterns prior to about AD 1600

The report makes due note of this (pg. 119 of the report):

The Mann et al. large-scale surface temperature reconstructions were the first to include explicit statistical error bars, which provide an indication of the confidence that can be placed in the results. In the Mann et al. work, the error bars were relatively small back to about A.D. 1600, but much larger for A.D. 1000–1600. The lower precision during earlier times is caused primarily by the limited availability of annually resolved paleoclimate data: That is, the farther back in time, the harder it is to find evidence that provides reliable annual information. For the period before about A.D. 900, annual data series are very few in number, and the non-annually resolved data used in reconstructions introduce additional uncertainties.

2) The authors accurately note that, despite those uncertainties, the key conclusions reached by those studies (i.e., that hemispheric-scale warmth in recent decades is likely unprecedented over at last the past millennium) have been substantiated by many other studies, and the confidence in those conclusions appears greater, not lesser, after nearly an additional decade of research (pg. 109 of the report):

The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes the additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and documentation of the spatial coherence of recent warming described above (Cook et al. 2004, Moberg et al. 2005, Rutherford et al. 2005, D’Arrigo et al. 2006, Osborn and Briffa 2006, Wahl and Ammann in press), and also the pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators described in previous chapters (e.g., Thompson et al. in press). Based on the analyses presented in the original papers by Mann et al. and this newer supporting evidence, the committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium.

3) Despite the attempts of some commentators to attempt conflate the evidence for the existence of human influences on climate with the validity of a single reconstruction (e.g. that of Mann et al) it is quite clear that the evidence for anthropogenic impacts on climate is quite strong irrespective of whether or not the original “hockey stick” is correct. The report makes repeated note of this key point, for example on page 4 of the report:

Surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence.

and again on page 9 of the report:

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