The U.S. National Research Council — an independent body that advises the U.S. Congress on scientific matters — has released its final report on certain climate change issues.
According to its press release, there is sufficient evidence from tree rings, boreholes, retreating glaciers, and other “proxies” of past surface temperatures to say with a high level of confidence that the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years.
“Less confidence can be placed in proxy-based reconstructions of surface temperatures for A.D. 900 to 1600,” said the committee that wrote the report, although the available proxy evidence does indicate that many locations were warmer during the past 25 years than during any other 25-year period since 900. Very little confidence can be placed in statements about average global surface temperatures prior to A.D. 900 because the proxy data for that time frame are sparse, the committee added.
Scientists rely on proxies to reconstruct paleoclimatic surface temperatures because geographically widespread records of temperatures measured with instruments date back only about 150 years. Other proxies include corals, ocean and lake sediments, ice cores, cave deposits, and documentary sources, such as historic drawings of glaciers. The globally averaged warming of about one degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) that instruments have recorded during the last century is also reflected in proxy data for that time period, the committee noted.
The report was requested by Congress after a controversy arose last year over surface temperature reconstructions published by climatologist Michael Mann and his colleagues in the late 1990s. Mann and his colleagues had concluded that the warming of the Northern Hemisphere in the last decades of the 20th century was unprecedented in the past thousand years. In particular, they concluded that the 1990s were the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year. Their graph depicting a rise in temperatures at the end of a long era became known as the “hockey stick.”
The Research Council committee found the Mann team’s conclusion that warming in the last few decades of the 20th century was unprecedented over the last thousand years to be plausible, but it had less confidence that the warming was unprecedented prior to 1600; fewer proxies — in fewer locations — provide temperatures for periods before then. Because of larger uncertainties in temperature reconstructions for decades and individual years, and because not all proxies record temperatures for such short timescales, even less confidence can be placed in the Mann team’s conclusions about the 1990s, and 1998 in particular.
The committee noted that scientists’ reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures for the past thousand years are generally consistent. The reconstructions show relatively warm conditions centered around the year 1000, and a relatively cold period, or “Little Ice Age,” from roughly 1500 to 1850. The exact timing of warm episodes in the medieval period may have varied by region, and the magnitude and geographical extent of the warmth is uncertain, the committee said. None of the reconstructions indicates that temperatures were warmer during medieval times than during the past few decades, the committee added.
The scarcity of precisely dated proxy evidence for temperatures before 1600, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, is the main reason there is less confidence in global reconstructions dating back further than that. Other factors that limit confidence include the short length of the instrumental record, which is used to calibrate and validate reconstructions, and the possibility that the relationship between proxy data and local surface temperatures may have varied over time. It also is difficult to estimate a mean global temperature using data from a limited number of sites.
On the other hand, confidence in large-scale reconstructions is boosted by the fact that the proxies on which they are based generally exhibit strong correlations with local environmental conditions. Confidence increases further when multiple independent lines of evidence point to the same general phenomenon, such as the Little Ice Age.
Collecting additional proxy data, especially for years before 1600 and for areas where the current data are relatively sparse, would increase our understanding of temperature variations over the last 2,000 years, the report says. In addition, improving access to data on which published temperature reconstructions are based would boost confidence in the results. The report also notes that new analytical methods, or more careful use of existing methods, might help circumvent some of the current limitations associated with large-scale reconstructions.
The committee pointed out that surface temperature reconstructions for periods before the Industrial Revolution — when levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases were much lower — are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that current warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence.
The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. (A committee roster is listed below.)
Copies of “Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years” will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu
The National Research Council’s news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org You may order a printed copy of the report, or read it online for free by clicking on “full report” and then “free resources.”
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate
Committee on “Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years”:
Gerald R. North (chair)
Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Oceanography and
Harold J. Haynes Endowed Chair in Geosciences
Texas A&M University
Associate Professor of Physical Geography
University of Nevada
Professor of Statistics and of Financial Mathematics
North Carolina State University
John R. Christy
Professor of Atmospheric Science, and
Earth System Science Center
University of Alabama
Kurt M. Cuffey
Professor of Geography
University of California
Robert E. Dickinson1,2
School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology
Ellen R.M. Druffel
Professor of Earth System Science
University of California
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Climate and Global Dynamics Division;
Paleoclimate Group; and
Climate Change Research Section
National Center for Atmospheric Research
School of Geography
University of Plymouth
Plymouth, United Kingdom
Karl K. Turekian1
Sterling Professor of Geology and Geophysics
New Haven, Conn.
John M. Wallace1
Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, and
Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean
University of Washington
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering