Earth at Warmest in 400 Years
National Academy of Sciences
June 22, 2006

'High Confidence' That Planet Is Warmest in 400 Years; Less Confidence in Temperature Reconstructions Prior to 1600

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, according to a new report from the National Research Council. 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 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. The researchers 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.

Temperature record over the past 1100 years. Image courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences

Smoothed reconstructions of large-scale (Northern Hemisphere mean or global mean) surface temperature variations from six different research teams are shown along with the instrumental record of global mean surface temperature. Each curve portrays a somewhat different history of temperature variations, and is subject to a somewhat different set of uncertainties that generally increase going backward in time (as indicated by the gray shading). This set of reconstructions conveys a qualitatively consistent picture of temperature changes over the last 1,100 years, and especially the last 400.

2005 Surface temperature anomaly. Image courtesy of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The highest global surface temperature in more than a century of instrumental data was recorded in the 2005 calendar year in the GISS annual analysis. However, the error bar on the data implies that 2005 is practically in a dead heat with 1998, the warmest previous year.


2005 was the warmest year on record
A new study by NASA indicates that 2005 was the warmest year in at least a century, surpassing 1998. According to their data, the five warmest years over the last century have occurred since 1997: 2005, then 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004. NASA also announced that over the past 30 years, the Earth has warmed by 0.6 degrees C or 1.08 degrees F, and 0.8 degrees C or 1.44 degrees F over the past 100 years. The NASA study follows two studies from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released last year that suggested 1998 was the warmest year. According to the NASA researchers, the primary difference among the conclusions is the inclusion of data from the Arctic in the NASA analysis. 2005 appears to have been unusually warm in the Arctic, resulting in significant loss in sea ice.

World temperatures highest in 1200 years
World temperatures are higher than in any period over the last 1,200 years, according to a study published in the current issue of Science. In reaching their conclusion, a research team from the University of East Anglia in Britain analyzed 14 sets of temperature records including data from rings, fossil shells, ice cores, temperature records, and historical documents from North America, Europe and East Asia.

Carbon dioxide level highest in 650,000 years
Carbon dioxide levels are now 27 percent higher than at any point in the last 650,000 years, according to research into Antarctic ice cores published on Thursday in Science. Analysis of carbon dioxide in the ancient Antarctic ice showed that at no point in the past 650,000 years did levels approach today's carbon dioxide concentrations of around 380 parts per million (ppm). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could reach 450-550 ppm by 2050, possibly resulting in higher temperatures and rising sea levels. There is fear that climate change could create a class of environmental refugees displaced from their homes by rising oceans, increasingly catastrophic weather, and expanding deserts.
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 follows.

This article is a modified news release from the National Academy of Sciences.

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National Academy of Sciences (June 22, 2006).

Earth at Warmest in 400 Years.