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The mystery of the offset chronologies: Tree rings and the volcanic record of the 1st millennium

Filed under: — group @ 19 February 2015

Guest commentary by Jonny McAneney

Volcanism can have an important impact on climate. When a large volcano erupts it can inject vast amounts of dust and sulphur compounds into the stratosphere, where they alter the radiation balance. While the suspended dust can temporarily block sunlight, the dominant effect in volcanic forcing is the sulphur, which combines with water to form sulphuric acid droplets. These stratospheric aerosols dramatically change the reflectivity, and absorption profile of the upper atmosphere, causing the stratosphere to heat, and the surface to cool; resulting in climatic changes on hemispheric and global scales.

Interrogating tree rings and ice cores

Annually-resolved ice core and tree-ring chronologies provide opportunities for understanding past volcanic forcing and the consequent climatic effects and impacts on human populations. It is common knowledge that you can tell the age of a tree by counting its rings, but it is also interesting to note that the size and physiology of each ring provides information on growing conditions when the ring formed. By constructing long tree ring chronologies, using suitable species of trees, it is possible to reconstruct a precisely-dated annual record of climatic conditions.

Ice cores can provide a similar annual record of the chemical and isotopic composition of the atmosphere, in particular volcanic markers such as layers of volcanic acid and tephra. However, ice cores can suffer from ambiguous layers that introduce errors into the dating of these layers of volcanic acid. To short-circuit this, attempts have been made to identify know historical eruptions within the ice records, such as Öraefajökull (1362) and Vesuvius (AD 79). This can become difficult since the ice chronologies can only be checked by finding and definitively identifying tephra (volcanic glass shards) that can be attributed to these key eruptions; sulphate peaks in the ice are not volcano specific.

Thus, it is fundamentally important to have chronological agreement between historical, tree-ring and ice core chronologies: The ice cores record the magnitude and frequency of volcanic eruptions, with the trees recording the climatic response, and historical records evidencing human responses to these events.

But they don’t quite line up…
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Can we make better graphs of global temperature history?

I’m writing this post to see if our audience can help out with a challenge: Can we collectively produce some coherent, properly referenced, open-source, scalable graphics of global temperature history that will be accessible and clear enough that we can effectively out-compete the myriad inaccurate and misleading pictures that continually do the rounds on social media?

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The new IPCC climate report

The time has come: the new IPCC report is here! After several years of work by over 800 scientists from around the world, and after days of extensive discussion at the IPCC plenary meeting in Stockholm, the Summary for Policymakers was formally adopted at 5 o’clock this morning. Congratulations to all the colleagues who were there and worked night shifts. The full text of the report will be available online beginning of next week. Realclimate summarizes the key findings and shows the most interesting graphs.

Update 29 Sept: Full (un-copyedited) report available here.

Global warming

It is now considered even more certain (> 95%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. Natural internal variability and natural external forcings (eg the sun) have contributed virtually nothing to the warming since 1950 – the share of these factors was narrowed down by IPCC to ± 0.1 degrees. The measured temperature evolution is shown in the following graph.

Figure 1 The measured global temperature curve from several data sets. Top: annual values. ​​Bottom: averaged values ​​over a decade.
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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.
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  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.

The PAGES-2k synthesis

Filed under: — group @ 21 April 2013

Guest commentary by Darrell Kaufman (N. Arizona U.)

In a major step forward in proxy data synthesis, the PAst Global Changes (PAGES) 2k Consortium has just published a suite of continental scale reconstructions of temperature for the past two millennia in Nature Geoscience. More information about the study and its implications are available at the FAQ on the PAGES website and the datasets themselves are available at NOAA Paleoclimate.

The main conclusion of the study is that the most coherent feature in nearly all of the regional temperature reconstructions is a long-term cooling trend, which ended late in the 19th century, and which was followed by a warming trend in the 20th C. The 20th century in the reconstructions ranks as the warmest or nearly the warmest century in all regions except Antarctica. During the last 30-year period in the reconstructions (1971-2000 CE), the average reconstructed temperature among all of the regions was likely higher than anytime in at least ~1400 years. Interestingly, temperatures did not fluctuate uniformly among all regions at multi-decadal to centennial scales. For example, there were no globally synchronous multi-decadal warm or cold intervals that define a worldwide Medieval Warm Period or Little Ice Age. Cool 30-year periods between the years 830 and 1910 CE were particularly pronounced during times of weak solar activity and strong tropical volcanic eruptions and especially if both phenomena often occurred simultaneously.
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  1. . , "Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia", Nature Geoscience, vol. 6, pp. 339-346, 2013.