IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

6.7 Concluding Remarks on Key Uncertainties

Each palaeoclimatic time scale covered in this chapter contributes to the understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and also responds to changes in climate forcing. The existing body of knowledge is sufficient to support the assertions of this chapter. At the same time, key uncertainties remain, and greater confidence would result if these uncertainties were reduced.

Even though a great deal is known about glacial-interglacial variations in climate and greenhouse gases, a comprehensive mechanistic explanation of these variations remains to be articulated. Similarly, the mechanisms of abrupt climate change (for example, in ocean circulation and drought frequency) are not well enough understood, nor are the key climate thresholds that, when crossed, could trigger an acceleration in sea level rise or regional climate change. Furthermore, the ability of climate models to simulate realistic abrupt change in ocean circulation, drought frequency, flood frequency, ENSO behaviour and monsoon strength is uncertain. Neither the rates nor the processes by which ice sheets grew and disintegrated in the past are known well enough.

Knowledge of climate variability over the last 1 to 2 kyr in the SH and tropics is severely limited by the lack of palaeoclimatic records. In the NH, the situation is better, but there are important limitations due to a lack of tropical records and ocean records. Differing amplitudes and variability observed in available millennial-length NH temperature reconstructions, and the extent to which these differences relate to choice of proxy data and statistical calibration methods, need to be reconciled. Similarly, the understanding of how climatic extremes (i.e., in temperature and hydro-climatic variables) varied in the past is incomplete. Lastly, this assessment would be improved with extensive networks of proxy data that run right up to the present day. This would help measure how the proxies responded to the rapid global warming observed in the last 20 years, and it would also improve the ability to investigate the extent to which other, non-temperature, environmental changes may have biased the climate response of proxies in recent decades.