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Dendroclimatic Divergence Phenomenon: Reassessment of Causes and Implications for Climate Reconstruction Project

Status: completed
Publication State: published


Background Information:

Palaeoclimate reconstructions extend our knowledge of how climate varied in times before expansive networks of measuring instruments became available. These reconstructions are founded on an understanding of theoretical and statistically-derived associations acquired by comparing the parallel behaviour of palaeoclimate proxies and measurements of varying climate. Inferences about variations in past climate, based on this understanding, necessarily assume that the associations we observe now hold true throughout the period for which reconstructions are made. This is the essence of the uniformitarian principle.

In some northern areas of the world, recent observations of tree growth and measured temperature trends appear to have diverged in recent decades, the so called 'divergence' phenomenon. There has been much speculation, and numerous theories proposed, to explain why the previous temperature sensitivity of tree growth in these areas is apparently breaking down. The existence of divergence casts doubt on the uniformitarian assumption that underpins a number of important tree-ring based (dendroclimatic) reconstructions. It suggests that the degree of warmth in certain periods in the past, particularly in medieval times, may be underestimated or at least subject to greater uncertainty than is currently accepted.

The lack of a clear overview of this phenomenon and the lack of a generally accepted cause had led some to challenge the current scientific consensus, represented in the 2007 report of the IPCC on the likely unprecedented nature of late 20th century average hemispheric warmth when viewed in the context of proxy evidence (mostly from trees) for the last 1300 years.

This project will seek to systematically reassess and quantify the evidence for divergence in many tree-ring data sets around the Northern Hemisphere. It will establish a much clearer understanding of the nature of the divergence phenomenon, characterising the spatial patterns and temporal evolution.

Based on recent published and unpublished work by the proposers, it has become apparent that foremost amongst the possible explanations is the need to account for systematic bias potentially inherent in the methods used to build many tree-ring chronologies including many that are believed to exhibit this phenomenon. This proposal is designed to build on recent innovations in tree-ring chronology production techniques, also developed by the proposers. These new methods will produce tree-ring chronologies whose variability is unbiased, either by temporal changes in the age structure of the constituent sample series, or by any distortion in the data that can arise when using the previously applied techniques. The extensive reprocessed and improved data sets will then form the basis for many detailed, site-by-site comparisons of local climate and various tree-growth parameters in order to re-characterise the nature, strength and temporal stability of the climate/growth associations. This will represent a systematic and objective re-assessment of the evidence for divergence in different forest contexts.

The project will then explore all of the current theories for the cause(s) of divergence employing both statistical and process-modelling techniques. The project will go on to use the reprocessed tree-ring data sets to re-calibrate many important climate reconstructions, with varying levels of spatial detail, and carefully assess the implications of the divergence effect, as newly characterised, on reconstruction uncertainty. This project will provide results that will inform the international scientific debate and widespread public perception of the reliability of tree-ring-based climate reconstructions in particular, but also our current understanding of the reliability of current evidence for high-resolution temperature changes during the late Holocene.

This project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for three and a half years from May 2010 to October 2013 (NERC Reference: NE/G018863/1).

Data can be found on the website below. The data is not in the BADC archive due to the poor quality.

Abbreviation: rm2010-dendroclimatic_div
Keywords: tree-ring, NERC


Keywords: tree-ring, NERC
Previously used record identifiers:
No related previous identifiers.
Related parties
Principal Investigators (1)
Co-Investigators (2)