|Working Group I: The Scientific Basis|
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A “proxy” climate indicator is a local record that is interpreted using physical or biophysical principles to represent some combination of climate-related variations back in time. Palaeoclimate proxy indicators have the potential to provide evidence for large-scale climatic changes prior to the existence of widespread instrumental or historical documentary records. Typically, the interpretation of a proxy climate record is complicated by the presence of “noise” in which climate information is immersed, and a variety of possible distortions of the underlying climate information (e.g., Bradley, 1999; Ren, 1999a,b). Careful calibration and cross-validation procedures are necessary to establish a reliable relationship between a proxy indicator and the climatic variable or variables it is assumed to represent, providing a “transfer” function through which past climatic conditions can be estimated. High-resolution proxy climate indicators, including tree rings, corals, ice cores, and laminated lake/ocean sediments, can be used to provide detailed information on annual or near-annual climate variations back in time. Certain coarser resolution proxy information (from e.g., boreholes, glacial moraines, and non-laminated ocean sediment records) can usefully supplement this high-resolution information. Important recent advances in the development and interpretation of proxy climate indicators are described below.
Several important caveats must be borne in mind when using tree-ring data for palaeoclimate reconstructions. Not least is the intrinsic sampling bias. Tree-ring information is available only in terrestrial regions, so is not available over substantial regions of the globe, and the climate signals contained in tree-ring density or width data reflect a complex biological response to climate forcing. Non-climatic growth trends must be removed from the tree-ring chronology, making it difficult to resolve time-scales longer than the lengths of the constituent chronologies (Briffa, 2000). Furthermore, the biological response to climate forcing may change over time. There is evidence, for example, that high latitude tree-ring density variations have changed in their response to temperature in recent decades, associated with possible non-climatic factors (Briffa et al., 1998a). By contrast, Vaganov et al. (1999) have presented evidence that such changes may actually be climatic and result from the effects of increasing winter precipitation on the starting date of the growing season (see Section 18.104.22.168). Carbon dioxide fertilization may also have an influence, particularly on high-elevation drought-sensitive tree species, although attempts have been made to correct for this effect where appropriate (Mann et al., 1999). Thus climate reconstructions based entirely on tree-ring data are susceptible to several sources of contamination or non-stationarity of response. For these reasons, investigators have increasingly found tree-ring data most useful when supplemented by other types of proxy information in “multi-proxy” estimates of past temperature change (Overpeck et al., 1997; Jones et al., 1998; Mann et al., 1998; 1999; 2000a; 2000b; Crowley and Lowery, 2000).
Recently, there has been increased activity in creating high-resolution Antarctic ice core series e.g., for the past millennium (Peel et al., 1996; Mayewski and Goodwin, 1997; Morgan and van Ommen, 1997). In certain regions, isotope information from ice cores shows the late 20th century temperatures as the warmest few decades in the last 1,000 years (Thompson et al., 2000a). Key strengths of ice core information are their high resolution (annual or even seasonal where accumulations rates are particularly high - see van Ommen and Morgan, 1996, 1997), availability in polar and high-elevation regions where other types of proxy climate information like tree-ring data are not available, and their provision of multiple climate- and atmosphere-related variables from the same reasonably well dated physical location (e.g., the GISP2 core; White et al., 1998a). A weakness of ice core data is regional sampling bias (high elevation or high latitude) and melt water and precipitation accumulation data are not easy to date accurately.
The best dated series are based on sub-annual sampling of cores and the counting of seasonal ice layers. Such series may have absolute dating errors as small as a few years in a millennium (Fisher et al., 1996). Dating is sometimes performed using volcanic acid layers with assumed dates (e.g., Clausen et al., 1995) but uncertainties in the volcanic dates can result in dating uncertainties throughout the core (Fisher et al., 1998).
Lake and ocean sediments
Ocean sediments may also be useful for high-resolution climate reconstructions. In rare examples, annually laminated sediments can be found (e.g., Hughen et al., 1996; Black et al., 1999) and it is possible to incorporate isotope and other information in climate reconstructions, much as varved lake sediments are used. Otherwise, sedimentation rates may sometimes still be sufficiently high that century-scale variability is resolvable (e.g., the Bermuda rise ocean sediment oxygen isotope record of Keigwin, 1996). Dating in such cases, however, must rely on radiometric methods with relatively poor age control.
Figure 2.19 shows a reconstructed global ground surface temperature history (Pollack et al., 1998; see also Huang et al., 2000) from an average of the 358 individual sites, most located in North America and Eurasia, but some located in Africa, South America and Australia (similar results are obtained by Huang et al., 2000, using an updated network of 616 sites). Superimposed is an instrumental estimate of global surface air temperature (Jones and Briffa, 1992). The ensemble of reconstructions shows that the average ground temperature of the Earth has increased by about 0.5°C during the 20th century, and that this was the warmest of the past five centuries. About 80% of the sites experienced a net warming over this period. The estimated mean cumulative ground surface temperature change since 1500 is close to 1.0 ± 0.3°C. Uncertainties due to spatial sampling (see Pollack et al., 1998 and Huang et al., 2000) are also shown. It should be noted that the temporal resolution of the borehole estimates decreases sharply back in time, making it perilous to compare the shape of the trend shown in Figure 2.19 with better-resolved trends determined from higher-resolution climate proxy data discussed below.
While borehole data provide a direct estimate of ground surface temperatures under certain simplifying assumptions about the geothermal properties of the earth near the borehole, a number of factors complicate their interpretation. Non-temperature-related factors such as land-use changes, natural land cover variations, long-term variations in winter snow cover and soil moisture change the sub-surface thermal properties and weaken the interpretation of the reconstructions as estimates of surface air temperature change. In central England, where seasonal snow cover is not significant, and major land-use changes occurred many centuries ago, borehole ground surface temperature trends do tend to be similar to those in long instrumental records (Jones, 1999). In contrast, Skinner and Majorowicz (1999) show that borehole estimates of ground surface temperature warming during the 20th century in north-western North America are 1 to 2°C greater than in corresponding instrumental estimates of surface air temperature. They suggest that this discrepancy may be due to land-use changes that can enhance warming of the ground surface relative to that of the overlying atmospheric boundary layer (see also Lewis, 1998). Such factors need to be better understood before borehole temperature measurements can be confidently interpreted.
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