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Responses to volcanoes in tree rings and models

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 November 2012

Houston, we have a problem.

Admittedly, not a huge problem and not one that most people, or even most climatologists, are particularly fascinated by, but one which threads together many topics (climate models, tree rings, paleo-climate) which have been highlighted here in the past. The problem is that we have good evidence in the ice core records for very large tropical eruptions over the last 1000 years – in particular the eruptions in 1258/1259, 1452 and 1809 to 1815 – but for which many paleo-reconstructions barely show a blip in temperature. Models, in attempting to simulate this period, show varied but generally larger (and sometimes much larger) responses. The differences are significant enough to have prompted a few people to try and look into why this mismatch is occurring.

Whenever there is a mismatch between model and observation, there are, roughly speaking, at least three (non-exclusive) possibilities: the model is wrong, the observational data are wrong or the comparison is not like-with-like. There have been many examples of resolved mismatches in each category so all possibilities need to be looked at.

As described in a previous post earlier this year, Mann et al., 2012 (pdf), postulated that for extreme volcanoes, the cooling would be sufficient to saturate the growth response, and that some trees might `skip´ a ring for that year leading to a slight slippage in tree-ring dating, a potential smearing of the composite chronologies, and a further underestimate of the cooling in tree-ring based large-scale reconstructions.

This hypothesis has now been challenged by a group of authors in a comment (Anchukaitis et al.) (pdf, SI, code), who focus on the appropriateness of the tree ring growth model and the spatial pattern the volcanic climate responses. The Mann et al. response (pdf, SI) presents some further modeling and 19th century observational data in support of the original hypothesis.

Of course, there are still two other possibilities to consider. First, the models may have an excessive response. This could be due to either models responding excessively to the correct forcing, or could be related to an excessive forcing itself. There are indeed some important uncertainties in estimating the history of volcanic forcing – which involves inferring a stratospheric aerosol load (and effective radius of the particles and their distribution) from a network of sulphate peaks in ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica. For example, the forcing for the big eruption around 1453 differs by a factor of 2 in the inferred forcing (-12 W/m2 and -5.4 W/m2) in the two estimates proposed for the recent model-intercomparison (Schmidt et al., 2012). Note too that the details of how aerosols are implemented in any specific model can also make a difference to the forcing, and there are many (as yet untested) assumptions built into the forcing reconstructions.

It is also conceivable that climate models overreact to volcanic forcing – however, excellent matches to the Pinatubo response in temperature, radiative anomalies, water vapour and dynamic responses, where we know the volcanic aerosol load well, make that tricky to support (Hansen et al, 2007) (pdf, SI). (As an aside, the suggestion in this paper that the response to Krakatoa (1883) was underpredicted by the historical SST fields was partially vindicated by the results from HadSST3 which showed substantially more cooling).

The third possibility is that some tree-ring reconstructions can’t be easily compared to simple temperature averages from the models. As both the original paper and the comment suggests, there are important effects from memory from previous years in ring widths and, potentially, increases in diffuse light post-eruption promoting growth spurts. This needs to be assessed using more sophisticated forward models for tree ring growth applied to the models’ output – a feature in both the Mann et al, and Anchukaitis et al. approaches. More work is likely needed on this, and using the wider variety of model experiments coming out of CMIP5/PMIP3.

There is clearly potential for these competing hypotheses to get sorted out. Information from newly-digitised old instrumental records in the early 19th Century such as shipping records for the East India Company (Brohan et al, 2012), doesn’t support the largest modelled responses to Tambora (1815), but does suggest a response larger and more defined than that seen in some reconstructions. However, other 19th Century temperature compilations such Berkeley Earth show larger responses to Tambora – though there are spatial sampling issues there as well. There is also the potential for non-tree ring based reconstructions to provide independent confirmation of the magnitude of the response.

So while neither of the latest comments and responses provide a definitive answer to the principal problem, there is certainly lots of scope for extended and (hopefully) productive discussions.


  1. M.E. Mann, J.D. Fuentes, and S. Rutherford, "Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring-based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 202-205, 2012.
  2. K.J. Anchukaitis, P. Breitenmoser, K.R. Briffa, A. Buchwal, U. Büntgen, E.R. Cook, R.D. D'Arrigo, J. Esper, M.N. Evans, D. Frank, H. Grudd, B.E. Gunnarson, M.K. Hughes, A.V. Kirdyanov, C. Körner, P.J. Krusic, B. Luckman, T.M. Melvin, M.W. Salzer, A.V. Shashkin, C. Timmreck, E.A. Vaganov, and R.J.S. Wilson, "Tree rings and volcanic cooling", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 836-837, 2012.
  3. M.E. Mann, J.D. Fuentes, and S. Rutherford, "Reply to 'Tree rings and volcanic cooling'", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 837-838, 2012.
  4. G.A. Schmidt, J.H. Jungclaus, C.M. Ammann, E. Bard, P. Braconnot, T.J. Crowley, G. Delaygue, F. Joos, N.A. Krivova, R. Muscheler, B.L. Otto-Bliesner, J. Pongratz, D.T. Shindell, S.K. Solanki, F. Steinhilber, and L.E.A. Vieira, "Climate forcing reconstructions for use in PMIP simulations of the Last Millennium (v1.1)", Geosci. Model Dev., vol. 5, pp. 185-191, 2012.
  5. J. Hansen, M. Sato, R. Ruedy, P. Kharecha, A. Lacis, R. Miller, L. Nazarenko, K. Lo, G.A. Schmidt, G. Russell, I. Aleinov, S. Bauer, E. Baum, B. Cairns, V. Canuto, M. Chandler, Y. Cheng, A. Cohen, A. Del Genio, G. Faluvegi, E. Fleming, A. Friend, T. Hall, C. Jackman, J. Jonas, M. Kelley, N.Y. Kiang, D. Koch, G. Labow, J. Lerner, S. Menon, T. Novakov, V. Oinas, J. Perlwitz, J. Perlwitz, D. Rind, A. Romanou, R. Schmunk, D. Shindell, P. Stone, S. Sun, D. Streets, N. Tausnev, D. Thresher, N. Unger, M. Yao, and S. Zhang, "Climate simulations for 1880–2003 with GISS modelE", Clim Dyn, vol. 29, pp. 661-696, 2007.
  6. P. Brohan, R. Allan, E. Freeman, D. Wheeler, C. Wilkinson, and F. Williamson, "Constraining the temperature history of the past millennium using early instrumental observations", Climate of the Past, vol. 8, pp. 1551-1563, 2012.

My oh Miocene!

Guest commentary by Sarah Feakins

Our recent study in Nature Geoscience reconstructed conditions at the Antarctic coast during a warm period of Earth’s history. Today the Ross Sea has an ice shelf and the continent is ice covered; but we found the Antarctic coast was covered with tundra vegetation for some periods between 20 million and 15.5 million years ago. These findings are based on the isotopic composition of plant leaf waxes in marine sediments.

That temperatures were warm at that time was not a huge surprise; surprising, was how much warmer things were – up to 11ºC (20ºF) warmer at the Antarctic coast! We expected to see polar amplification, i.e. greater changes towards the poles as the planet warms. This study found those coastal temperatures to be as warm as 7ºC or 45ºF during the summer months. This is a surprise because conventional wisdom has tended to think of Antarctica being getting progressively colder since ice sheets first appeared on Antarctica 34 million years ago (but see Ruddiman (2010) for a good discussion of some of the puzzles).
More »


  1. S.J. Feakins, S. Warny, and J. Lee, "Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 557-560, 2012.
  2. W.F. Ruddiman, "A Paleoclimatic Enigma?", Science, vol. 328, pp. 838-839, 2010.

Tree Rings and Climate: Some Recent Developments

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2012

by Michael E. Mann, Gavin Schmidt, and Eric Steig

Update 7/12/12: Media Matters comments on the latest misrepresentations of the Esper et al study discussed in our article: ‘Surprise: Fox News Fails Paleoclimatology’
Update 7/13/12: Further comment from Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute in Huffington Post UK “The World’s Most Visited Newspaper Website Continues to Regurgitate Nonsense from Climate Change ‘Sceptics'”
Update 7/14/12: Some additional context provided by this LiveScience article

It’s been a tough few months for tree-rings, perhaps unfairly. Back in April, we commented on a study [that one of us (Mike) was involved in] that focused on the possibility that there is a threshold on the cooling recorded by tree-ring composites that could limit their ability to capture the short-term cooling signal associated with larger volcanic eruptions. Mostly lost in the discussion, however, was the fact–emphasized in the paper—that the trees appeared to be doing a remarkably good job in capturing the long-term temperature signal—the aspect of greatest relevance in discussions of climate change.

This week there have been two additional studies published raising questions about the interpretation of tree-ring based climate reconstructions.
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Far out in North Carolina

Filed under: — stefan @ 24 June 2012

The extensive salt marshes on the Outer Banks of Carolina offer ideal conditions for unravelling the mysteries of sea level change during past centuries. Here is a short report from our field work there – plus some comments on strange North Carolina politics as well as two related new papers published today in Nature Climate Change.

The Outer Banks of Carolina are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise, partly because the land is subsiding and the banks are naturally moving landward. On the ocean front, land is continually being lost.
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Fresh hockey sticks from the Southern Hemisphere

In the Northern Hemisphere, the late 20th / early 21st century has been the hottest time period in the last 400 years at very high confidence, and likely in the last 1000 – 2000 years (or more). It has been unclear whether this is also true in the Southern Hemisphere. Three studies out this week shed considerable new light on this question. This post provides just brief summaries; we’ll have more to say about these studies in the coming weeks. More »

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