The testimony of trees: how volcanic eruptions shaped 2000 years of world history


30-09-2020
  Driftwood in Siberia  Credit: Clive Oppenheimer

Researchers have shown that over the past 2000 years, volcanoes have played a larger role in natural temperature variability than previously thought, and their climatic effects may have contributed to past societal and economic change

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, used samples from more than 9000 living and dead trees to obtain a precise yearly record of summer temperatures in North America and Eurasia, dating back to the year 1 CE. This revealed colder and warmer periods that they then compared with records for very large volcanic eruptions as well as major historical events.

Crucial to the accuracy of the dataset was the use of the same number of data points across the entire 2000 years. Previous reconstructions of climate over this extended period have been biased by over-representation of trees from more recent times.

The results, reported in the journal Dendrochronologia, show that the effect of volcanoes on global temperature changes is even greater than had been recognised, although the researchers stress that their work in no way diminishes the significance of human-caused climate change.

Instead, the researchers say, the study contributes to our understanding of the natural causes and societal consequences of summer temperature changes over the past two thousand years.

“There is so much we can determine about past climate conditions from the information in tree rings, but we have far more information from newer trees than we do for trees which lived a thousand years or more ago,” said Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, the study’s lead author. “Removing some of the data from the more recent past levels the playing field for the whole 2000-year period we’re looking at, so in the end, we gain a more accurate understanding of natural versus anthropogenic climate change.”

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Image:  Driftwood in Siberia

Credit: Clive Oppenheimer

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

 

The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)