National Academies: Last Few Decades Were Warmer Than Any Comparable Period In Last 400 Years

The National Academies' National Research Council issued a report finding 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 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) that instruments have recorded during the last century also is reflected in proxy data for that time period, the committee noted.

The report, released on June 22, 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. The researchers concluded that the warming of the Northern Hemisphere in the last decades of the 20th century was unprecedented in the past 1,000 years. In particular, they concluded that the 1990s were the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year.

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 1,000 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 states. 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.

Additional information on the report, Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, can be accessed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11676.html.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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