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Yamal and Polar Urals: a research update

Filed under: — group @ 3 June 2013

Guest commentary from Tim Osborn, Tom Melvin and Keith Briffa, Climatic Research Unit, UEA

Records of tree-ring characteristics such as their width (TRW) and density (usually the maximum density of the wood formed towards the end of the growing season – the “maximum latewood density” – MXD) are widely used to infer past variations in climate over recent centuries and even millennia. Chronologies developed from sites near to the elevational or latitudinal tree lines often show sensitivity to summer temperature and, because of their annual resolution, absolute dating and relatively widespread nature, they have contributed to many local, continental and hemispheric temperature reconstructions. However, tree growth is a complex biological process that is subject to a range of changing environmental influences, not just summer temperature, and so replication, coherence and consistency across records and other proxies are an important check on the results.

Tree-ring records have greater replication (both within a site and between nearby sites) than other types of climate proxy. Good replication helps to minimise the influence of random localised factors when extracting the common signal, and it also allows the comparison of information obtained from different independent sets or sub-sets of data. If independent sets of data – perhaps trees with different mean growth rates or from different sites – show similar variations, then we can have greater confidence that those variations are linked to real variations in climate.

In a new QSR paper (Briffa et al., 2013), (BEA13) we have used these approaches to re-assess the combined tree-ring evidence from the Yamal and Polar Urals region (Yamalia) of northern Siberia, considering the common signal in tree-growth changes at different sites and in subsets of data defined in other ways. Together with our Russian colleagues and co-authors, we have incorporated many new tree-ring data, to increase the replication and to update the chronology to 2005 and have reassessed the inferences about summer temperature change that can be drawn from these data. The paper is published as an open-access paper (no paywall) and supplementary information including the raw tree-ring and instrumental temperature data are available from our website.

Figure 1 illustrates our inferences about past summer temperature variations. Low tree-growth periods for which the inferred summer temperatures are approximately 2.5°C below the 1961-90 reference are apparent in the 15-year smoothed reconstructions (Figure 1d), centred around 1005, 1300 (Figure 1b), 1455 (Figure 1c), 1530, particularly the 1810s where the inferred cooling reaches -4 or even -6°C for individual years (Figure 1a), and the 1880s. These temperature estimates will be interesting for the current debate about the representation of volcanically-induced cooling in temperature reconstructions, and for testing of climate model simulations.

There are numerous periods (Figure 1d) of one or two decades with relatively high growth (and inferred summer temperatures close to the 1961-90 level) but at longer timescales (Figures 1e and 1f) only the 40-year period centred at 250 CE appears comparable with 20th century warmth. This early warm period was both preceded and followed by periods of low ring width and so the central estimates of the temperature reconstruction averaged over the warmest 100-year period near the 3rd century CE (205-304 CE) are 0.4°C cooler than the 1906-2005 mean. Allowing for chronology and reconstruction uncertainty, we find that the mean of the last 100 years of the reconstruction is likely warmer than any century in the last 2000 years in this region.

Figure 1 (from Fig. 13 of BEA13). Summer temperature reconstructions based on either the Yamal ring-width chronology (red line, orange confidence intervals) or by combining information from the Yamal and Polar Urals ring-width chronologies and the Polar Urals density chronology (blue line, blue confidence intervals). The latter is shorter because the Polar Urals data are shorter and also has two versions that differ in how they are calibrated and in the summer temperature that they represent (in panels (a)-(e) it represents mean June–August temperature shown by the black dotted lines, while in panel (f) it represents mean June–July temperature shown by black continuous lines). Each panel shows a different time period and degree of smoothing; the values near to the end of the smoothed series are more uncertain than shown here due to the presence of end effects on the spline filters. The low-frequency agreement between the series is expected because the Yamal ring-width data are common to both reconstructions.

A response to the critics

The publication of our paper provides a timely opportunity to revisit and respond to a series of unfounded criticisms that have been levelled at our work in recent years, mostly originating from Steve McIntyre at the ClimateAudit blog, though they have been widely repeated and embellished by other commentators.

It is of course usual for results to be improved and superseded as science progresses. Our new Yamalia ring-width chronology differs from the Yamal chronology published by Briffa (2000) – see Figure 2a for a comparison. The very recent values are now lower (and extend by a decade more), but so are the estimates around 1000 CE. The consequent differential between medieval and modern growth is hardly changed. The period of high growth centred near to 250 CE (noted above) is also relatively unchanged, and is now the most prominent pre-20th century period of anomalous growth in the last 2000 years. These changes are because of genuine scientific progress, not because – as our critics have claimed – we had previously presented a deceptive chronology. They arise from extra data collection and, particularly, developments in tree-ring standardization methods (see the paper for details).

Figure 2. (a) Comparison of the Briffa (2000) Yamal ring-width chronology (red) and the new Yamalia ring-width chronology (black). (b) Comparison of the new Yamalia ring-width chronology (black) and two chronologies that have been promoted by critics of our work, but which turn out to be biased: the Polar Urals “update” chronology (purple; from Esper et al., 2002) and the Yamal chronology with modern data coming only from the Khadyta River site (blue). All series were scaled to have unit variance before being smoothed with a 10-year filter.

Figure 2b compares the new Yamalia chronology with two alternative chronologies heavily promoted by McIntyre and others – the so-called Polar Urals “update” chronology and a Yamal chronology using modern samples from the Khadyta River site. Both chronologies present a different picture of the difference between peak medieval and peak modern growth rates, with elevated growth around 1000 CE and suppressed growth in the 20th century. Our paper demonstrates that these two alternative chronologies are flawed.

The real Yamal deception

Some background is perhaps needed regarding our preferred chronologies. Briffa et al. (1995) developed chronologies from Polar Urals ring width and density data. Subsequently, Briffa (2000) presented a 2000-year ring width chronology from nearby Yamal, which had much better replication (more trees) than the Polar Urals data and was therefore preferred. The Polar Urals data were later supplemented by additional samples which were used by Esper et al. (2002). Even including these additional samples the Yamal chronology remained better replicated: of the 1213 overlap years, the Briffa (2000) Yamal has 4 years with samples from less than 10 trees, while the “updated” Polar Urals chronology has 264 years with data from less than 10 trees, many of them in the medieval period (see here for more details). The additional sub-fossil data used in our new paper further increases the replication of the Yamal chronology compared with the Polar Urals chronology (Figure EC1 in the SI of the new paper). On the basis of replication and the strength of the common signal, the Yamal record was, and remains, superior to the Polar Urals chronology.

1: Why we didn’t use the Polar Urals “update”

We have been criticised for not archiving the Polar Urals “update” data. The “update” data were in fact archived at the ITRDB thirteen years ago. We have been criticised for not publishing an updated Polar Urals chronology using the updated data (and accused of worse here). The supposed reason for our decision not to do this was that the ‘update’ does not support our supposedly desired message of unprecedented modern warmth (because they appear to suggest that tree growth rate was greater during earlier times including the medieval period; Figure 2b, compare purple and black lines).

However, as reported in BEA13, it turns out that during the medieval period these Polar Urals “updates” are dominated by samples taken from the root collars of trees. Ring widths measured in such root-collar samples tend to be systematically larger than equivalent rings measured higher in the boles (stems) of the same trees. The reason for larger tree-ring widths during medieval times in the Polar Urals “updates” is now clear: it is because more samples were from the root collar with their inherently wider rings. Interpreting this as evidence for warmer temperatures is wrong.

Conclusion: the so-called “Polar Urals update” chronology is severely biased and should not be used as evidence of past changes in temperature; nor should our critics present it as evidence that we had committed scientific fraud by failing to publish a chronology using these data.

2: The Yamal record was not biased by omitting data

CRU has been accused of deception by presenting a Yamal tree-ring chronology biased by the omission of otherwise suitable data. A particular theme, originating again from ClimateAudit, is that tree-ring data from Khadyta River had not been used and would have dramatically altered the character of the chronology – and the NH temperature reconstructions that used the Yamal chronology – if these data had been used (Figure 2b, compare blue and black lines).

As reported in BEA13, through collaboration with our Russian colleagues who have extensive knowledge of tree-rings in this region, we have learnt that the Khadyta River site has problems related to the particular site conditions that differ from other sites in this region, and maybe influenced by changing permafrost. Certainly the trees have reduced growth and appear to be unhealthy, and some even dying. Thus the Khadyta River data that some claimed as being more representative than the data we used turn out to have a common signal that is inconsistent with the majority of site chronologies in this region. They could potentially bias the Yamal chronology had they been included and so for this reason we excluded these data from the main analysis in the new paper.

Conclusion: claims of a deceptive and biased Yamal chronology turn out to rely on outlier data that should be omitted; our new research, based on a greatly expanded dataset, supports the finding that tree-growth (and inferred summer temperature) in this region are likely greater in the last 100 years than for any previous century in the last 2000 years.

3: We did not withhold a combined Yamal and Polar Urals chronology

Separately, some of our incomplete and unpublished work on the Yamal and Polar Urals tree-ring data has been the subject of multiple requests under UK FOI/EIR legislation. (See this previous post for background). To be clear, this was not a request for the raw data that we were using in this area of northern Russia – the raw data were and are freely available. Instead, the request was for a tree-ring chronology that formed part of work that was, at the time, still ongoing.

The EIR has a (very sensible) exemption for material which is unfinished, incomplete or still in the course of completion. Our university (UEA) therefore refused the requests to release our incomplete research (see responses here and here). Steve McIntyre appealed and UEA reconsidered the issues but upheld the original decision. McIntyre then complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO upheld UEA’s decision and rejected McIntyre’s complaint. McIntyre then appealed to the First-Tier Information Tribunal. Two weeks ago, after more than two years defending our right to publish our research at a time when we considered it to be complete rather than at a time dictated to us by Steve McIntyre, the Information Tribunal finally dismissed McIntyre’s appeal.

The research that was the subject of this information request has now been – as we said all along that it would be – completed and published, coincidentally, within days of the Information Tribunal’s decision. Our publication of this work contradicts McIntyre’s explicit accusations that we were hiding the requested chronology because it would have exposed long-standing scientific fraud on our part. These accusations were, and remain, baseless and mistaken.

Over the years, McIntyre has advanced a number of other criticisms of our tree-ring work in northwestern Eurasia. We note here that these too are also wrong.: 1) the original Polar Urals chronology was not wrongly cross-dated as claimed in a 2005 submission to Nature by McIntyre and McKitrick. When we demonstrated this in our response, Nature decided to publish neither their comment nor our response. It is worth noting that this rejection, nor any acknowledgement of his erroneous conclusions, were ever mentioned by McIntyre on his blog. (2) The Grudd (2008) Tornetrask chronology, promoted by some because of its elevated medieval growth (and implied much greater warmth) relative to the modern period, is biased by the issues noted in Melvin et al. (2013).

In conclusion, criticisms of our work have been based on misconceptions and misinformation. The so-called Polar Urals “update” chronology promoted by our critics turns out to be biased by inclusion of samples from tree root collars. The Khadyta River tree-ring data, whose exclusion from the Yamal chronology was portrayed as a severe example of cherry-picking to obtain a pre-conceived outcome, are from trees that appear to be dying and do not have a common signal with other regions. An updated Tornetrask chronology, with apparently elevated medieval warmth, turns out to be biased by combining incompatible groups of measurements.

That the critics have promoted a series of results that have turned out to be flawed is unfortunate but not in itself reason to complain – as science progresses it is usual for results to be improved and superseded. What can be condemned, however, is the long campaign of allegations of dishonesty and scientific fraud made against us on the basis of these false claims. That is the most disquieting legacy of Steve McIntyre and ClimateAudit. The real Yamal deception is their attempt to damage public confidence in science by making speculative and scandalous claims about the actions and motivations of scientists while cloaking them in a pretense of advancing scientific knowledge.

Links to other relevant information

CRU response to Yamal criticisms in 2009

CRU comments on the Ross McKitrick 2009 article published in the Financial Post (17 June 2010).

Response to comments about the dating of the Polar Urals chronology, the reliability of the early parts of the Polar Urals reconstruction, and our view that the Yamal chronology was more reliable.


  1. K.R. Briffa, T.M. Melvin, T.J. Osborn, R.M. Hantemirov, A.V. Kirdyanov, V.S. Mazepa, S.G. Shiyatov, and J. Esper, "Reassessing the evidence for tree-growth and inferred temperature change during the Common Era in Yamalia, northwest Siberia", Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 72, pp. 83-107, 2013.
  2. K.R. Briffa, "Annual climate variability in the Holocene: interpreting the message of ancient trees", Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 19, pp. 87-105, 2000.
  3. K.R. Briffa, P.D. Jones, F.H. Schweingruber, S.G. Shiyatov, and E.R. Cook, "Unusual twentieth-century summer warmth in a 1,000-year temperature record from Siberia", Nature, vol. 376, pp. 156-159, 1995.
  4. J. Esper, "Low-Frequency Signals in Long Tree-Ring Chronologies for Reconstructing Past Temperature Variability", Science, vol. 295, pp. 2250-2253, 2002.
  5. H. Grudd, "Torneträsk tree-ring width and density ad 500–2004: a test of climatic sensitivity and a new 1500-year reconstruction of north Fennoscandian summers", Climate Dynamics, vol. 31, pp. 843-857, 2008.
  6. T.M. Melvin, H. Grudd, and K.R. Briffa, "Potential bias in ‘updating’ tree-ring chronologies using regional curve standardisation: Re-processing 1500 years of Torneträsk density and ring-width data", The Holocene, vol. 23, pp. 364-373, 2012.

111 Responses to “Yamal and Polar Urals: a research update”

  1. 101
    TimG says:

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting.

    One thing I don’t understand is the 100-year smoothing graphs. I’m not really a math guy, but I would have thought that smoothing for 100 years would mean averaging every point with all years 50 ahead and 50 behind. That would mean (I think!) that the graphs should stop 50 years before the end of your study (i.e. 1963 at the latest). But the graphs go on to today.

    To a naive reader it seems like the only way to have the 100 year moving average for the year 2000 is to have the data for 2050 (which, obviously we don’t have). So I assume you do something different for all the years past 1963. In looking at the graphs, the uptick at the end doesn’t seem to fit very well with those that are fit at 15 years.

    Just curious how that works. Is there a CSV file with the unsmoothed data I could play way? Mostly I’m just curious.


    [Response: The raw data are at the links given above, so smooth away as you like. The smooths above are described in the caption as being spline fits, and indeed, there are important ‘end-point’ effects that can arise (as noted). – gavin]

  2. 102
    TimG says:

    Thanks! Just for my own use, I plotted the data using (I guess) naive smoothing. I also added HadCRUT4 to the graph just for reference (I know that is global temp). If anyone else cares to see (or tinker with) it the same way, I published a Google Spreadsheet:

    You can comment on it or make your own copy.


  3. 103
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 84, 86, 87, Jim and Martin
    I hope y’all pick a forum/website/blog, where you can go on extensively, and do have what may become a fascinating hard argument to pound on this until you both feel you’ve understood each other’s issues. From the peanut gallery, this is –always– the most instructive thing to watch. I’d guess it’d develop and deserve a dedicated topic — somewhere Gavin and others participate.

    It’s as all have said a difficult and developing area of the science. A well moderated thread is always helpful.

    [Response: Keep in mind that I’m only describing the existing problem (because it’s gone un-recognized). The realm of solutions to it is another matter, and one that requires serious testing under simulation. That’s the problem with all existing methods–they haven’t been fully tested that way.–Jim]

  4. 104
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Here a write-up on the ideas that I tried to present here, for those interested. I’m sorry if it has a “spherical cow” quality to it ;-)

  5. 105

    In your recent inline comment and in your blog article, you made a number of false or inaccurate characterizations of my view on proxies and Polar Urals in particular.

    You stated that I had “heavily promoted” a Yamal chronology using only modern samples from Khadyta and had both “advocated” and “heavily promoted” a Polar Urals chronology incorporating the polurula measurements. However, you did not provide a quotation or link supporting these claims, which I believe to be untrue. Contrary to your statements, I have not “advocated” or “heavily promoted” the Polar Urals, Khadyta or any other proxies. A far more common complaint of my critics is that I’ve consistently refused to put forward my own alternative reconstruction. In addition, on numerous occasions, I’ve counselled readers to be equally critical of proxies that they “like”. I reject your assertion that I’ve advocated or promoted any tree ring chronology.

    [Response: In this new comment and over at CA you choose to misrepresent my statements. You advocated publishing an ‘updated Polar Urals’ chronology (that you believed it would support an elevated MWP). Now that we have published an updated chronology for the region, with careful consideration of the source data (and do not find evidence of an elevated MWP), you have changed your position and are now complaining that we are publishing with an inadequate dataset. As to your promotion of the biased versions of Polar Urals and Yamal, I will not search through the hundreds of comments you have made on the subject in multiple venues to find ones that might meet some agreed definition of “promotion”. The point about promotion is this: have people reading CA gained the impression that these alternative chronologies were reasonable, perhaps more reasonable than ones that we had published or used because you claimed they were based on newer or less biased data? If so, then you’ve promoted them. (Because where else did any of this come from?). Given that your advocacy has extended to explicitly claiming that we refused to publish this work in order to hide
    academic fraud, I think that it is a fair comment to make. – Tim Osborn]

    On the other hand, I have frequently pointed out the inconsistency between seemingly like proxies (e.g. Polar Urals, Yamal, the Decline) and observed that reconciliation/explanation of such inconsistencies was, in my opinion, a prerequisite prior to the use of either. For example, in response to criticism from Tom Crowley at Andy Revkin’s here

    Crowley interprets the inconsistency as evidence of past “regional” climate, but offers no support for this interpretation other than the inconsistency itself –- which could equally be due to the “proxies” not being temperature proxies. There are fundamental inconsistencies at the regional level as well, including key locations of California (bristlecones) and Siberia (Yamal) …Without such detailed regional reconciliations, it cannot be concluded that inconsistency is evidence of “regional” climate as opposed to inherent defects in the “proxies” themselves.

    [Response: We have moved towards a regional reconciliation for Yamal/Polar Urals, as reported in our paper. – Tim Osborn]

    In my submission to Muir Russell, I similarly took issue with preferring one series over another without proper reconciliation of different proxies within a region:

    In the absence of any explanation of the substitution, there is reason to be concerned about the reasons for using one series rather than the other.

    [Response: Sure, that is a reasonable point to raise in a discussion of the science. In the context of an inquiry looking for evidence of manipulation or suppression of data, it comes across as an insinuation of misconduct. – Tim Osborn]

    In your inline comment, you complain that I did not sufficiently acknowledge that Briffa et al 2013 had identified an inhomogeneity arising from radial deformation associated with root collars. This is unfair. In the first blog article in my recent series, I explicitly credited your recognition of inhomogeneity arising from radial deformation – an issue that has actually been a longstanding concern at Climate Audit (e.g. here. I also observed that recognition of the importance of such inhomogeneity would logically require reconsideration of strip bark (bristlecone) chronologies, where the radial deformation is far more severe than that shown in the Polar Urals.

    [Response: Unfair? Hmmm… perhaps I missed your acknowledgement that we had demonstrated the flaws in the “Polar Urals update” that you had previously advocated? If so, please point me to it. The use of strip bark is an interesting problem and I’d like to do more work on those chronologies sometime. But for this thread it is a diversion from the significant progress we have made at Yamal/Polar Urals. – Tim Osborn]

  6. 106
    Jonbo says:

    I’ve just had a look at McIntyre’s entry in Wikipedia and it is clearly biased in his favour
    For instance,a summary of the ‘Hockey stick controversy’ concludes with the definitive statement ‘A 2006 report to Congress by a team of statisticians led by Edward Wegman found the criticisms of the hockey stick graph by McIntyre and McKitrick to be “valid and compelling.”‘

    I have no idea how to edit an entry on Wikipedia, so I just thought I would put it out there in case anyone fancies having a go. Cheers.

  7. 107
    Steve Metzler says:

    Know what you mean, Jonbo. Deep Climate showed just how shoddy McIntyre’s effort (and Wegman’s parroting of same without checking the work) was here:

    Replication and due diligence, Wegman style

    ‘Valid and compelling’ are not the words that apply there, no.

  8. 108

    ‘Valid and compelling’ are not the words that apply there, no.

    Ah! They are not the words you would have used. Maybe if you had a former grad student or a political hack to help you with the phrasing, though…

    Or should that be “‘help’ you with the phrasing?”

  9. 109
    gavin says:

    I find it amusing that McIntyre feels (#105) that this post is ‘unfair’.

    “Unfair” might be misrepresenting my earlier post (criticizing McIntyre’s never-ending accusations of misconduct and his ultimately futile attempts to use FOIA/EIR to get hold of unpublished work) as a criticism of any specific analysis, despite the opening line being “Steve McIntyre is free to do any analysis he wants on any data he can find” and not mentioning his results at all.

    “Unfair” might be taking a statement I made in that post (on May 11 2012 – note the date), pointing out that Briffa et al’s results would be different from what McIntyre had put up (on May 6 2012) (as the figure below demonstrates), and then using a calculation made on May 15 2012 to claim I was wrong.

    Claiming that my comments were an intemperate response to his results posted 4 days later might, in some circles, also be considered “unfair”.

    But, as my father always told me, no-one ever said the world was fair… ;-)

  10. 110
    Jim says:

    Just now getting to respond to Gavin’s comment regarding the significance of Esper et al 2012 relative to RCS detrending concerns and the reliability of climate estimates from tree rings. Part (a) of Figure 3 is the relevant detail there, and the “very good correspondence” that it shows (r=0.58) between tree-ring widths (TRW, blue lines) and maximum latewood density (MXD, black) is driven primarily by the high-frequency variations, not by the long term trends, which the linear regressions to the two clearly show are different. This is one of the problems with using linear correlation to make assessments of similarity, and it is not at all uncommon to find very high correlations at short time scales, but much poorer ones at longer scales, including in sites showing the so-called “divergence problem”. Since the RCS method was used to detrend both series in their Fig 3a, there is no guarantee that the MXD long term trend is necessarily correct either. However, its estimated trend is supported much more strongly by the other types of truly independent long-term climate information supplied in their Figure S1, including glacial, treeline and data from two climate models (the gray/black lines in the figure are the tree-ring based estimates, green is treeline data, blue is glacial data and red and orange are climate model data; see the paper, linked to above, for the details on all figures). Therefore it is much more likely that the MXD is giving the better trend estimate. My guess for the likely reason for that is that the MXD data contain less of an age/size trend than the TRW data do, and there is therefore less confounding of size and climate, though I don’t know for sure. So, this lack of ability to capture long term trends, using RCS methods on ring widths, is exactly the concern that I have been trying to raise.

  11. 111
    Phil Clarke says:

    Gavin: ““Unfair” might be taking a statement I made in that post, pointing out that Briffa et al’s results would be different from what McIntyre had put up and then using a calculation made on May 15 2012 to claim I was wrong.”

    Congratulations for not reaching for the words ‘pea’ and ‘thimble’ ;-)