Global Temperatures, Volcanic Eruptions, and Trees that Didn’t Bark

Interestingly, the long-term variations indicated by the model simulations compared remarkably well with those documented by the tree-ring reconstruction, showing no obvious sign of the potential biases in the estimated low-frequency temperature variations that have been the focus of much previous work (see e.g. this previous RealClimate review). Instead, the one glaring inconsistency was in the high-frequency variations, specifically, the cooling response to the largest few tropical eruptions, AD 1258/1259, 1452/1453 and the 1809+1815 double pulse of eruptions, which is sharpy reduced in the reconstruction relative to the model predictions. Indeed, this was found to be true for any of several different published volcanic forcing series for the past millennium, regardless of the precise geometric scaling used to estimate radiative forcing from volcanic optical depth, and regardless of the precise climate sensitivity assumed.

Following the AD 1258 eruption, the climate model simulations predict a drop of 2C, but the tree ring-based reconstruction shows only about a 0.5C cooling. Equally vexing, the cooling in the reconstruction occurs several years late relative to what is predicted by the model. The other large eruptions showed similar discrepancies. An analysis using synthetic proxy data with spatial sampling density and proxy signal-to-noise ratios equivalent to those of the D’Arrigo et al (2006) tree-ring network suggest that these discrepancies cannot be explained in terms of either the spatial sampling/extent or the intrinsic “noisiness” of the network of proxy records.

However, using a tree growth model that accounts for the temperature growth thresholding effects discussed above, combined with the complicating effects of chronological errors due to potential missing growth rings, explains the observed features remarkably well.

Show in the above figure (Figure 2d from the article) is the D’Arrigo et al tree-ring based NH reconstruction (blue) along with the climate model (NCAR CSM 1.4) simulated NH mean temperatures (red) and the “simulated tree-ring” NH temperature series based on driving the biological growth model with the climate model simulated temperatures (green). The two insets focus on the response to the AD 1258 and AD 1809+1815 volcanic eruption sequences. The attenuation of the response is produced primarily by the loss of sensitivity to further cooling for eruptions that place growing season temperatures close to the lower threshold for growth. The smearing and delay of the cooling, however, arises from another effect: when growing season lengths approach zero, we assume that no growth ring will be detectable for that year. That means that an age model error of 1 year will be introduced in the chronology counting back in time. As multiple large eruptions are encountered further back in time, these age model errors accumulate. This factor would lead to a precise chronological error, rather than smearing of the chronology, if all treeline sites experienced the same cooling. However, stochastic weather variations will lead to differing amounts of cooling for synoptically distinct regions. That means that in any given year, some regions might fall below the “no ring” threshold, while other regions do not. That means that different chronological errors accumulate in synoptically-distinct regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In forming a hemispheric composite, these errors thus lead to a smearing out of the signal back in time as slightly different age model errors accumulate in the different regions contributing to the composite.

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