IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis How Can Palaeoclimatic Proxy Methods Be Used to Reconstruct Past Climate Dynamics?

Most of the methods behind the palaeoclimatic reconstructions assessed in this chapter are described in some detail in the aforementioned books, as well as in the citations of each chapter section. In some sections, important methodological background and controversies are discussed where such discussions help assess palaeoclimatic uncertainties.

Palaeoclimatic reconstruction methods have matured greatly in the past decades, and range from direct measurements of past change (e.g., ground temperature variations, gas content in ice core air bubbles, ocean sediment pore-water change and glacier extent changes) to proxy measurements involving the change in chemical, physical and biological parameters that reflect – often in a quantitative and well-understood manner – past change in the environment where the proxy carrier grew or existed. In addition to these methods, palaeoclimatologists also use documentary data (e.g., in the form of specific observations, logs and crop harvest data) for reconstructions of past climates. While a number of uncertainties remain, it is now well accepted and verified that many organisms (e.g., trees, corals, plankton, insects and other organisms) alter their growth and/or population dynamics in response to changing climate, and that these climate-induced changes are well recorded in the past growth of living and dead (fossil) specimens or assemblages of organisms. Tree rings, ocean and lake plankton and pollen are some of the best-known and best-developed proxy sources of past climate going back centuries and millennia. Networks of tree ring width and density chronologies are used to infer past temperature and moisture changes based on comprehensive calibration with temporally overlapping instrumental data. Past distributions of pollen and plankton from sediment cores can be used to derive quantitative estimates of past climate (e.g., temperatures, salinity and precipitation) via statistical methods calibrated against their modern distribution and associated climate parameters. The chemistry of several biological and physical entities reflects well-understood thermodynamic processes that can be transformed into estimates of climate parameters such as temperature. Key examples include: oxygen (O) isotope ratios in coral and foraminiferal carbonate to infer past temperature and salinity; magnesium/calcium (Mg/Ca) and strontium/calcium (Sr/Ca) ratios in carbonate for temperature estimates; alkenone saturation indices from marine organic molecules to infer past sea surface temperature (SST); and O and hydrogen isotopes and combined nitrogen and argon isotope studies in ice cores to infer temperature and atmospheric transport. Lastly, many physical systems (e.g., sediments and aeolian deposits) change in predictable ways that can be used to infer past climate change. There is ongoing work on further development and refinement of methods, and there are remaining research issues concerning the degree to which the methods have spatial and seasonal biases. Therefore, in many recent palaeoclimatic studies, a combination of methods is applied since multi-proxy series provide more rigorous estimates than a single proxy approach, and the multi-proxy approach may identify possible seasonal biases in the estimates. No palaeoclimatic method is foolproof, and knowledge of the underlying methods and processes is required when using palaeoclimatic data.

The field of palaeoclimatology depends heavily on replication and cross-verification between palaeoclimate records from independent sources in order to build confidence in inferences about past climate variability and change. In this chapter, the most weight is placed on those inferences that have been made with particularly robust or replicated methodologies.