Expert Report

Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years (2006)

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Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

In response to a request from Congress, this report assesses the state of scientific efforts to reconstruct surface temperature records for the Earth over approximately the last 2,000 years and the implications of these efforts for our understanding of global climate change. Because widespread, reliable temperature records are only available for the last 150 years or so, scientists estimate temperatures in the more distant past by analyzing "proxy evidence," which includes tree rings, corals, ocean and lake sediments, cave deposits, ice cores, boreholes, and glaciers. Starting in the late 1990s, scientists began using sophisticated methods to combine proxy evidence from many different locations in an effort to estimate surface temperature changes during the last few hundred to few thousand years. This report concludes that large-scale surface temperature reconstructions are important tools in our understanding of global climate change that allows us to say, with a high level of confidence, that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. Less confidence can be placed in large-scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600, although available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. Very little confidence can be assigned to statements concerning the hemispheric mean or global mean surface temperature prior to about A.D. 900, primarily because of the scarcity of precisely dated proxy evidence.

Key Messages

  • The committee finds that efforts to reconstruct temperature histories for broad geographic regions using multiproxy methods are an important contribution to climate research and that these large-scale surface temperature reconstructions contain meaningful climatic signals.
  • Climate model simulations show that the estimated temperature variations during the two millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution can be explained plausibly by estimated variations in solar radiation and volcanic activity during the same period.
  • Evidence for regional warmth during medieval times can be found in a diverse but more limited set of records including ice cores, tree rings, marine sediments, and historical sources from Europe and Asia, but the exact timing and duration of warm periods may have varied from region to region, and the magnitude and geographic extent of the warmth are uncertain.
  • It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. This statement is justified by the consistency of the evidence from a wide variety of geographically diverse proxies.
  • Large-scale surface temperature reconstructions yield a generally consistent picture of temperature trends during the preceding millennium, including relatively warm conditions centered around A.D. 1000 (identified by some as the Medieval Warm Period ) and a relatively cold period (or Little Ice Age ) centered around 1700.
  • Less confidence can be placed in large-scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600. Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. The uncertainties associated with reconstructing hemispheric mean or global mean temperatures from these data increase substantially backward in time through this period and are not yet fully quantified.
  • Surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence.
  • The committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium.
  • The instrumentally measured warming of about 0.6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century is also reflected in borehole temperature measurements, the retreat of glaciers, and other observational evidence, and can be simulated with climate models.
  • Very little confidence can be assigned to statements concerning the hemispheric mean or global mean surface temperature prior to about A.D. 900 because of sparse data coverage and because the uncertainties associated with proxy data and the methods used to analyze and combine them are larger than during more recent time periods.