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

TS.3.5 A Palaeoclimatic Perspective

Palaeoclimatic studies make use of measurements of past change derived from borehole temperatures, ocean sediment pore-water change and glacier extent changes, as well as proxy measurements involving the changes in chemical, physical and biological parameters that reflect past changes in the environment where the proxy grew or existed. Palaeoclimatic studies rely on multiple proxies so that results can be cross-verified and uncertainties better understood. It is now well accepted and verified that many biological organisms (e.g., trees, corals, plankton, animals) alter their growth and/or population dynamics in response to changing climate, and that these climate-induced changes are well recorded in past growth in living and dead (fossil) specimens or assemblages of organisms. Networks of tree ring width and tree ring density chronologies are used to infer past temperature changes based on calibration with temporally overlapping instrumental data. While these methods are heavily used, there are concerns regarding the distributions of available measurements, how well these sample the globe, and such issues as the degree to which the methods have spatial and seasonal biases or apparent divergence in the relationship with recent climate change. {6.2}

Table TS.4. Recent trends, assessment of human influence on trends, and projections of extreme weather and climate events for which there is evidence of an observed late 20th-century trend. An asterisk in the column headed ‘D’ indicates that formal detection and attribution studies were used, along with expert judgement, to assess the likelihood of a discernible human influence. Where this is not available, assessments of likelihood of human influence are based on attribution results for changes in the mean of a variable or changes in physically related variables and/or on the qualitative similarity of observed and simulated changes, combined with expert judgement. {3.8, 5.5, 9.7, 11.211.9; Tables 3.7, 3.8, 9.4}

Phenomenona and direction of trend Likelihood that trend occurred in late 20th century (typically post-1960) Likelihood of a human contribution to observed trend   Likelihood of future trend based on projections for 21st century using SRESb scenarios 
Warmer and fewer cold days and nights over most land areas Very likelyc Likelye Virtually certaine 
Warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas Very likelyd Likely (nights) e Virtually certaine 
Warm spells / heat waves: Frequency increases over most land areas Likely More likely than not   Very likely 
Heavy precipitation events. Frequency (or proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls) increases over most areas Likely More likely than not   Very likely  
Area affected by droughts increases Likely in many regions since 1970s More likely than not Likely  
Intense tropical cyclone activity increases Likely in some regions since 1970 More likely than not   Likely  
Increased incidence of extreme high sea level (excludes tsunamis)f Likely More likely than not g   Likely h 


a See Table 3.7 for further details regarding definitions.

b SRES refers to the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios. The SRES scenario families and illustrative cases are summarised in a box at the end of the Summary for Policymakers.

c Decreased frequency of cold days and nights (coldest 10%)

d Increased frequency of hot days and nights (hottest 10%)

e Warming of the most extreme days/nights each year

f Extreme high sea level depends on average sea level and on regional weather systems. It is defined here as the highest 1% of hourly values of observed sea level at a station for a given reference period.

g Changes in observed extreme high sea level closely follow the changes in average sea level {}. It is very likely that anthropogenic activity contributed to a rise in average sea level. {9.5.2}

h In all scenarios, the projected global average sea level at 2100 is higher than in the reference period {10.6}. The effect of changes in regional weather systems on sea level extremes has not been assessed.

Box TS.5: Extreme Weather Events

People affected by an extreme weather event (e.g., the extremely hot summer in Europe in 2003, or the heavy rainfall in Mumbai, India in July 2005) often ask whether human influences on the climate are responsible for the event. A wide range of extreme weather events is expected in most regions even with an unchanging climate, so it is difficult to attribute any individual event to a change in the climate. In most regions, instrumental records of variability typically extend only over about 150 years, so there is limited information to characterise how extreme rare climatic events could be. Further, several factors usually need to combine to produce an extreme event, so linking a particular extreme event to a single, specific cause is problematic. In some cases, it may be possible to estimate the anthropogenic contribution to such changes in the probability of occurrence of extremes.

However, simple statistical reasoning indicates that substantial changes in the frequency of extreme events (and in the maximum feasible extreme, e.g., the maximum possible 24-hour rainfall at a specific location) can result from a relatively small shift of the distribution of a weather or climate variable.

Extremes are the infrequent events at the high and low end of the range of values of a particular variable. The probability of occurrence of values in this range is called a probability distribution function (PDF) that for some variables is shaped similarly to a ‘Normal’ or ‘Gaussian’ curve (the familiar ‘bell’ curve). Box TS.5, Figure 1 shows a schematic of a such a PDF and illustrates the effect a small shift (corresponding to a small change in the average or centre of the distribution) can have on the frequency of extremes at either end of the distribution. An increase in the frequency of one extreme (e.g., the number of hot days) will often be accompanied by a decline in the opposite extreme (in this case the number of cold days such as frosts). Changes in the variability or shape of the distribution can complicate this simple picture.

Box TS.5 Figure 1

Box TS.5, Figure 1. Schematic showing the effect on extreme temperatures when the mean temperature increases, for a normal temperature distribution.

The IPCC Second Assessment Report noted that data and analyses of extremes related to climate change were sparse. By the time of the TAR, improved monitoring and data for changes in extremes was available, and climate models were being analysed to provide projections of extremes. Since the TAR, the observational basis of analyses of extremes has increased substantially, so that some extremes have now been examined over most land areas (e.g., daily temperature and rainfall extremes). More models have been used in the simulation and projection of extremes, and multiple integrations of models with different starting conditions (ensembles) now provide more robust information about PDFs and extremes. Since the TAR, some climate change detection and attribution studies focussed on changes in the global statistics of extremes have become available (Table TS.4). For some extremes (e.g., tropical cyclone intensity), there are still data concerns and/or inadequate models. Some assessments still rely on simple reasoning about how extremes might be expected to change with global warming (e.g., warming could be expected to lead to more heat waves). Others rely on qualitative similarity between observed and simulated changes. The assessed likelihood of anthropogenic contributions to trends is lower for variables where the assessment is based on indirect evidence.

It is very likely that average NH temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were warmer than any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the warmest in at least the past 1300 years. The data supporting these conclusions are most extensive over summer extratropical land areas (particularly for the longer time period; see Figure TS.20). These conclusions are based upon proxy data such as the width and density of a tree ring, the isotopic composition of various elements in ice or the chemical composition of a growth band in corals, requiring analysis to derive temperature information and associated uncertainties. Among the key uncertainties are that temperature and precipitation are difficult to separate in some cases, or are representative of particular seasons rather than full years. There are now improved and expanded data since the TAR, including, for example, measurements at a larger number of sites, improved analysis of borehole temperature data and more extensive analyses of glaciers, corals and sediments. However, palaeoclimatic data are more limited than the instrumental record since 1850 in both space and time, so that statistical methods are employed to construct global averages, and these are subject to uncertainties as well. Current data are too limited to allow a similar evaluation of the SH temperatures prior to the period of instrumental data. {6.6, 6.7}

Northern Hemisphere Temperature Reconstructions

Figure TS.20

Figure TS.20. (Top) Records of Northern Hemisphere temperature variation during the last 1300 years with 12 reconstructions using multiple climate proxy records shown in colour and instrumental records shown in black. (Middle and Bottom) Locations of temperature-sensitive proxy records with data back to AD 1000 and AD 1500 (tree rings: brown triangles; boreholes: black circles; ice core/ice boreholes: blue stars; other records including low-resolution records: purple squares). Data sources are given in Table 6.1, Figure 6.10 and are discussed in Chapter 6. {Figures 6.10 and 6.11}

Some post-TAR studies indicate greater multi-centennial NH variability than was shown in the TAR, due to the particular proxies used and the specific statistical methods of processing and/or scaling them to represent past temperatures. The additional variability implies cooler conditions, predominantly during the 12th to 14th, the 17th and the 19th centuries; these are likely linked to natural forcings due to volcanic eruptions and/or solar activity. For example, reconstructions suggest decreased solar activity and increased volcanic activity in the 17th century as compared to current conditions. One reconstruction suggests slightly warmer conditions in the 11th century than those indicated in the TAR, but within the uncertainties quoted in the TAR. {6.6}

The ice core CO2 record over the past millennium provides an additional constraint on natural climate variability. The amplitudes of the pre-industrial, decadal-scale NH temperature changes from the proxy-based reconstructions (<1°C) are broadly consistent with the ice core CO2 record and understanding of the strength of the carbon cycle-climate feedback. Atmospheric CO2 and temperature in Antarctica co-varied over the past 650,000 years. Available data suggest that CO2 acts as an amplifying feedback. {6.4, 6.6}

Changes in glaciers are evident in Holocene data, but these changes were caused by different processes than the late 20th-century retreat. Glaciers of several mountain regions in the NH retreated in response to orbitally forced regional warmth between 11,000 and 5000 years ago, and were smaller than at the end of the 20th century (or even absent) at times prior to 5000 years ago. The current near-global retreat of mountain glaciers cannot be due to the same causes, because decreased summer insolation during the past few thousand years in the NH should be favourable to the growth of glaciers. {6.5}

Palaeoclimatic data provide evidence for changes in many regional climates. The strength and frequency of ENSO events have varied in past climates. There is evidence that the strength of the Asian monsoon, and hence precipitation amount, can change abruptly. The palaeoclimatic records of northern and eastern Africa and of North America indicate that droughts lasting decades to centuries are a recurrent feature of climate in these regions, so that recent droughts in North America and northern Africa are not unprecedented. Individual decadal-resolution palaeoclimatic data sets support the existence of regional quasi-periodic climate variability, but it is unlikely that these regional signals were coherent at the global scale. {6.5, 6.6}

Strong evidence from ocean sediment data and from modelling links abrupt climate changes during the last glacial period and glacial-interglacial transition to changes in the Atlantic Ocean circulation. Current understanding suggests that the ocean circulation can become unstable and change rapidly when critical thresholds are crossed. These events have affected temperature by up to 16°C in Greenland and have influenced tropical rainfall patterns. They were probably associated with a redistribution of heat between the NH and SH rather than with large changes in global mean temperature. Such events have not been observed during the past 8000 years. {6.4}

Confidence in the understanding of past climate change and changes in orbital forcing is strengthened by the improved ability of current models to simulate past climate conditions. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; the last ‘ice age’ about 21,000 years ago) and the mid-Holocene (6000 years ago) were different from the current climate not because of random variability, but because of altered seasonal and global forcing linked to known differences in the Earth’s orbit (see Box TS.6). Biogeochemical and biogeophysical feedbacks amplified the response to orbital forcings. Comparisons between simulated and reconstructed conditions in the LGM demonstrate that models capture the broad features of inferred changes in the temperature and precipitation patterns. For the mid-Holocene, coupled climate models are able to simulate mid-latitude warming and enhanced monsoons, with little change in global mean temperature (<0.4°C), consistent with our understanding of orbital forcing. {6.2, 6.4, 6.5, 9.3}

Global average sea level was likely between 4 and 6 m higher during the last interglacial period, about 125,000 years ago, than during the 20th century, mainly due to the retreat of polar ice (Figure TS.21). Ice core data suggest that the Greenland Summit region was ice-covered during this period, but reductions in the ice sheet extent are indicated in parts of southern Greenland. Ice core data also indicate that average polar temperatures at that time were 3°C to 5°C warmer than the 20th century because of differences in the Earth’s orbit. The Greenland Ice Sheet and other arctic ice fields likely contributed no more than 4 m of the observed sea level rise, implying that there may also have been a contribution from Antarctica. {6.4}

The Arctic and the Last Interglacial

Figure TS.21

Figure TS.21. Summer surface air temperature change relative to the present over the Arctic (left) and ice thickness and extent for Greenland and western arctic glaciers (right) for the last interglacial, approximately 125,000 years ago, from a multi-model and multi-proxy synthesis. (Left) A multi-model simulation of summer warming during the last interglacial is overlain by proxy estimates of maximum summer warming from terrestrial (circles) and marine (diamonds) sites. (Right) Extents and thicknesses of the Greenland Ice Sheet and western Canadian and Iceland glaciers at their minimum extent during the last interglacial, shown as a multi-model average from three ice models. Ice core observations indicate ice during the last interglacial at sites (white dots), Renland (R), North Greenland Ice Core Project (N), Summit (S, GRIP and GISP2) and possibly Camp Century (C), but no ice at sites (black dots): Devon (De) and Agassiz (A).Evidence for LIG ice at Dye-3 (D, grey dot) is equivocal. {Figure 6.6}

Box TS.6: Orbital Forcing

It is well known from astronomical calculations that periodic changes in characteristics of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun control the seasonal and latitudinal distribution of incoming solar radiation at the top of the atmosphere (hereafter called ‘insolation’). Past and future changes in insolation can be calculated over several millions of years with a high degree of confidence. {6.4}

Precession refers to changes in the time of the year when the Earth is closest to the Sun, with quasi-periodicities of about 19,000 and 23,000 years. As a result, changes in the position and duration of the seasons on the orbit strongly modulate the latitudinal and seasonal distribution of insolation. Seasonal changes in insolation are much larger than annual mean changes and can reach 60 W m–2 (Box TS.6, Figure 1).

Box TS.6 Figure 1

Box TS.6, Figure 1. Schematic of the Earth’s orbital changes (Milankovitch cycles) that drive the ice age cycles. ‘T’ denotes changes in the tilt (or obliquity) of the Earth’s axis, ‘E’ denotes changes in the eccentricity of the orbit and ‘P’ denotes precession, that is, changes in the direction of the axis tilt at a given point of the orbit. {FAQ 6.1, Figure 1}

The obliquity (tilt) of the Earth’s axis varies between about 22° and 24.5° with two neighbouring quasi-periodicities of around 41,000 years. Changes in obliquity modulate seasonal contrasts as well as annual mean insolation changes with opposite effects at low vs. high latitudes (and therefore no effect on global average insolation) {6.4}.

The eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun has longer quasi-periodicities at 400,000 years and around 100,000 years. Changes in eccentricity alone have limited impacts on insolation, due to the resulting very small changes in the distance between the Sun and the Earth. However, changes in eccentricity interact with seasonal effects induced by obliquity and precession of the equinoxes. During periods of low eccentricity, such as about 400,000 years ago and during the next 100,000 years, seasonal insolation changes induced by precession are not as large as during periods of larger eccentricity (Box TS.6, Figure 1). {6.4}

The Milankovitch, or ‘orbital’ theory of the ice ages is now well developed. Ice ages are generally triggered by minima in high-latitude NH summer insolation, enabling winter snowfall to persist through the year and therefore accumulate to build NH glacial ice sheets. Similarly, times with especially intense high-latitude NH summer insolation, determined by orbital changes, are thought to trigger rapid deglaciations, associated climate change and sea level rise. These orbital forcings determine the pacing of climatic changes, while the large responses appear to be determined by strong feedback processes that amplify the orbital forcing. Over multi-millennial time scales, orbital forcing also exerts a major influence on key climate systems such as the Earth’s major monsoons, global ocean circulation and the greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere. {6.4}

Available evidence indicates that the current warming will not be mitigated by a natural cooling trend towards glacial conditions. Understanding of the Earth’s response to orbital forcing indicates that the Earth would not naturally enter another ice age for at least 30,000 years. {6.4, FAQ 6.1}