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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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Noise on the Telegraph

Filed under: — rasmus @ 11 February 2015

I was surprised by the shrill headlines from a British newspaper with the old fashioned name the Telegraph: “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”. So what is this all about?

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Unforced Variations: Feb 2015

Filed under: — group @ 7 February 2015

This month’s open thread.

Thoughts on 2014 and ongoing temperature trends

Filed under: — gavin @ 22 January 2015

Last Friday, NASA GISS and NOAA NCDC had a press conference and jointly announced the end-of-year analysis for the 2014 global surface temperature anomaly which, in both analyses, came out top. As you may have noticed, this got much more press attention than their joint announcement in 2013 (which wasn’t a record year).

In press briefings and interviews I contributed to, I mostly focused on two issues – that 2014 was indeed the warmest year in those records (though by a small amount), and the continuing long-term trends in temperature which, since they are predominantly driven by increases in greenhouse gases, are going to continue and hence produce (on a fairly regular basis) continuing record years. Response to these points has been mainly straightforward, which is good (if sometimes a little surprising), but there have been some interesting issues raised as well…
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A new sea level curve

Filed under: — stefan @ 14 January 2015

The “zoo” of global sea level curves calculated from tide gauge data has grown – tomorrow a new reconstruction of our US colleagues around Carling Hay from Harvard University will appear in Nature (Hay et al. 2015). That is a good opportunity for an overview over the available data curves. The differences are really in the details, the “big picture” of sea-level rise does not change. In all curves, the current rates of rise are the highest since records began.

The following graph shows the new sea level curve as compared to six known ones.


Fig 1 Sea level curves calculated by different research groups with various methods. The curves show the sea level relative to the satellite era (since 1992). Graph: Klaus Bittermann.

All curves show the well-known modern sea level rise, but the exact extent and time evolution of the rise differ somewhat. Up to about 1970, the new reconstruction of Hay et al. runs at the top of the existing uncertainty range. For the period from 1880 AD, however, it shows the same total increase as the current favorites by Church & White. Starting from 1900 AD it is about 25 mm less. This difference is at the margins of significance: the uncertainty ranges overlap. More »


  1. C.C. Hay, E. Morrow, R.E. Kopp, and J.X. Mitrovica, "Probabilistic reanalysis of twentieth-century sea-level rise", Nature, vol. 517, pp. 481-484, 2015.

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