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Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring-based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures


The largest eruption of a tropical volcano during the past millennium occurred in AD 1258–1259. Its estimated radiative forcing was several times larger than the 1991 Pinatubo eruption1. Radiative forcing of that magnitude is expected to result in a climate cooling of about 2 °C (refs 2, 3, 4, 5). This effect, however, is largely absent from tree-ring reconstructions of temperature6,7,8, and is muted in reconstructions that employ a mix of tree-rings and other proxy data9,10. This discrepancy has called into question the climate impact of the eruption2,5,11. Here we use a tree-growth model driven by simulated temperature variations to show that the discrepancy between expected and reconstructed temperatures is probably an artefact caused by a reduced sensitivity to cooling in trees that grow near the treeline. This effect is compounded by the secondary effects of chronological errors due to missing growth rings and volcanically induced alterations of diffuse light. We support this conclusion with an assessment of synthetic proxy records created using the simulated temperature variations. Our findings suggest that the evidence from tree rings is consistent with a substantial climate impact2,3,4,5 of volcanic eruptions in past centuries that is greater than that estimated by tree-ring-based temperature reconstructions.

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Figure 1: Modelled Northern Hemisphere mean surface temperatures.
Figure 2: Comparison of simulated and observed tree-ring reconstructions.
Figure 3: Growing-season statistics.


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M.E.M. acknowledges support from the ATM program of the National Science Foundation (grant ATM-0902133). J.D.F. acknowledges support from the DOE (grant DE-FC02-06ER64298). We thank L. Ning and S. Miller for providing technical assistance.

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M.E.M. carried out the modelling work. J.D.F. provided input on the biological modelling. S.R. assisted with the pseudoproxy tests. M.E.M. primarily wrote the paper. All three authors discussed results and provided input on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michael E. Mann.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Mann, M., Fuentes, J. & Rutherford, S. Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring-based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures. Nature Geosci 5, 202–205 (2012).

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