Some Historical Perspective

At Bryan Caplan’s blog this morning there was an odd comment that stirred up a 40-year old memory:

A single sentence in the Durants’ The Age of Napoleon makes me wonder whether I can trust a word they write on economic policy:

The memory is that it was reading another part of the Durant’s Story of Civilization (of which tAoN is volume 11) back in grade school, I stumbled on a passage which was the very first in any book of any kind in which I realized that the authors could let their political preconceptions alter their interpretation of their subject.  What they wrote, as I recall it very inexactly 40 years later, was to the effect that western civilization had progressed in a grand upward sweep since the time of the ancient Greeks, pausing only in the years 1952-1960 — which of course the Eisenhower administration. (This was written before Nixon was elected.)  I had previously believed that if something was written in a book, it was authoritatively true. This little gem was so blatantly silly that you couldn’t possibly take it seriously. Books weren’t Truth, after all.  It was a defining moment in my intellectual life, something like learning the truth about Santa Claus.

I had some of the same feelings, roughly a decade ago, to learn that the scientific establishment would attack ideas, in this case the notion of diamondoid machinery and mechanosynthesis, using blather, appeal to authority, and various other fallacies, when they knew they didn’t have valid scientific arguments. It was all in aid of getting funding and retaining prestige, and not the search for truth.

There was never a “nanogate” so we will probably never know to what extent the nanotech “in-group” fudged, colluded, or simply used the old-boy network to marginalize their rivals.  It would be just as clueless as the Durants to claim that there was a broad sweep of progress in nanotechnology except from 1996 to 2005.  But it’s also a bit disingenuous to claim, as some commentators have, to be “shocked — shocked!” to find that kind of thing going on in climate science.

Unlike some people, we at Foresight haven’t been overly focussed on the sturm und drang of science politics. A major reason is that in the long run, it doesn’t matter.  If diamondoid machines can be built, and it’s highly likely they can, there is little chance that they won’t be sometime in the coming century.  So no matter what the specifics of any given debate, it’s a good idea to look at things like the Industrial Revolution to understand the coming century of technological innovation.

One thing that Climategate does is give us an opportunity to step back from the details of the AGW argument and say, maybe these are heat-of-the-moment stuff, and in the long run will look as silly as the Durants’ allergy to Eisenhower. And perhaps, if we can put climate arguments in perspective, it will allow us to put the much smaller nano arguments (pun intended) into perspective too.

So let’s look at some ice.

I’m looking at the temperature record as read from this central Greenland ice core. It gives us about as close as we can come to a direct, experimental measurement of temperature at that one spot for the past 50,000 years.  As far as I know, the data are not adjusted according to any fancy computer climate model or anything else like that.

So what does it tell us about, say, the past 500 years? (the youngest datum is age=0.0951409 (thousand years before present) — perhaps younger snow doesn’t work so well?):


Well, whaddaya know — a hockey stick.  In fact, the “blade” continues up in the 20th century at least another half a degree.  But how long is the handle? How unprecedented is the current warming trend?


Yes, Virginia, there was a Medieval Warm Period, in central Greenland at any rate.  But we knew that — that’s when the Vikings were naming it Greenland, after all.  And the following Little Ice Age is what killed them off, and caused widespread crop failures (and the consequent burning of witches) across Europe.  But was the MWP itself unusual?


Well, no — over the period of recorded history, the average temperature was about equal to the height of the MWP.  Rises not only as high, but as rapid, as the current hockey stick blade have been the rule, not the exception.


In fact for the entire Holocene — the period over which, by some odd coincidence, humanity developed agriculture and civilization — the temperature has been higher than now, and the trend over the past 4000 years is a marked decline.  From this perspective, it’s the LIA that was unusual, and the current warming trend simply represents a return to the mean.  If it lasts.


From the perspective of the Holocene as a whole, our current hockeystick is beginning to look pretty dinky. By far the possibility I would worry about, if I were the worrying sort, would be the return to an ice age — since interglacials, over the past half million years or so, have tended to last only 10,000 years or so.  And Ice ages are not conducive to agriculture.


… and ice ages have a better claim on being the natural state of Earth’s climate than interglacials.  This next graph, for the longest period, we have to go to an Antarctic core (Vostok):


In other words, we’re pretty lucky to be here during this rare, warm period in climate history.  But the broader lesson is, climate doesn’t stand still.  It doesn’t even stand stay on the relatively constrained range of the last 10,000 years for more than about 10,000 years at a time.

Does this mean that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas? No.

Does it mean that it isn’t warming? No.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t develop clean, efficient technology that gets its energy elsewhere than burning fossil fuels?  Of course not.  We should do all those things for many reasons — but there’s plenty of time to do them the right way, by developing nanotech.  (There’s plenty of money, too, but it’s all going to climate science at the moment. :-) ) And that will be a very good thing to have done if we do fall back into an ice age, believe me.

For climate science it means that the Hockey Team climatologists’ insistence that human-emitted CO2 is the only thing that could account for the recent warming trend is probably poppycock.

And that, if you will allow me to return full circle, means that the Fat Fingers argument is probably poppycock too.

85 comments to Some Historical Perspective

  • [...] Period (MWP) and the Little Ice Age (LIA), which both fell within the past 1000-1300 years or so,  demonstrate that the current warming trend is part of a naturally-occurring climate pattern experienced by the [...]

  • [...] Period (MWP) and the Little Ice Age (LIA), which both fell within the past 1000-1300 years or so, demonstrate that the current warming trend is part of a naturally-occurring climate pattern experienced by the [...]

  • [...] 14, 2009 · Leave a Comment Great ice core data and graphs at The Foresight Institute: I’m looking at the temperature record as read from this central Greenland ice core. It gives us [...]

  • [...] Har den globale temperaturen virkelig økt? By minalill the Foresight Institute » Some Historical Perspective. [...]

  • [...] Foresight Institute, J. Storrs Hall had some interesting graphs made from NOAA ice core data (Alley, R.B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from [...]

  • Gary

    “The last decade is the warmest decade on record,” said Michael Mann.

    The earth is 4.5 billion years old. And the last decade is the warmest decade on record. OK. It’s the warmest for the past 100-150 years. Although I question that that’s a fact – it might be. And so what?

    The earth’s climate has been warming up for some 400 years now; ever since the end of the Little Ice Age. Before that, it was warming up for a bout 500-600 years. Global cooling, then global warming.

    Last 5,000 years of Mother Earth’s temperature

    Well folks.. if we’re in a global warming cycle (oh, do the MSM or the Gorites talk about that? I think not), then would one not generally expect that along the way during this warming cycle that on a fairly regular basis, we would experience the friggin “warmest decade in a little while?”

    So why is this such a profound statement?

    From the EPA, quoting the National Academy of Sciences:

    – There is a high level of confidence that the global average temperature during the last few decades was warmer than any comparable period during the last 400 years.
    ..end excerpt..

    Well gee whiz. Thanks for the General Science 101. It’s a warming cycle – what’d ya expect?

    Most scientists agree that the earth’s temperature is no warmer now than it was during the Medieval Warm Period (about 1,000 years ago). Here’s the consensus of science, from a study of 240 climate studies:

    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    March 31, 2003, Cambridge, MA -

    20th Century Climate Not So Hot

    .. has determined that the 20th century is neither the warmest century nor the century with the most extreme weather of the past 1000 years. The review also confirmed that the Medieval Warm Period of 800 to 1300 A.D. and the Little Ice Age of 1300 to 1900 A.D. were worldwide phenomena not limited to the European and North American continents. While 20th century temperatures are much higher than in the Little Ice Age period, many parts of the world show the medieval warmth to be greater than that of the 20th century.

    compiled and examined results from more than 240 research papers published by thousands of researchers over the past four decades. Their report, covering a multitude of geophysical and biological climate indicators, provides a detailed look at climate changes that occurred in different regions around the world over the last 1000 years.


    In fact, clear patterns did emerge showing that regions worldwide experienced the highs of the Medieval Warm Period and lows of the Little Ice Age, and that 20th century temperatures are generally cooler than during the medieval warmth.”


    Soon and his colleagues concluded that the 20th century is neither the warmest century over the last 1000 years, nor is it the most extreme.
    ..end excerpt

    Settled science. The science is in. There is no debate. Oops!

    There is little evidence to question that

    ..or so says the National Academy of Sciences (2006):

    – Very little confidence can be assigned to estimates of hemisphere average or global average temperature prior to A.D. 900 due to limited data coverage and challenges in analyzing older data.

    Oh run for your life, “it’s the warmest it’s ever been.”

    Oh spare me.

    Isn’t science fun.. when one doesn’t limit their interests to radical global warming alarmists?

    (;~/ gary

  • [...] The source of inspiration is from my post Hockey stick observed in NOAA ice core data. And the source of inspiration for that is from J. Storrs Hall, writing here. [...]

  • Patrick M.

    “Patrick and Mike: I don’t agree that anything the IPCC says has got to be false. ”
    My point was that we need to treat the IPCC as a political organization because that is what they are.
    An example of the IPCC blowing it is their changing dates for Himalayan glacier melts from 2350 to 2035.
    They not only screwed up the dates, they are supposed to use peer-reviewed sources for claims but in
    this case only used a magazine article as the source.
    Very shoddy work by IPCC: BBC:
    Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake’

  • Josh Cryer

    You do realize that a sister ice core will not be able to be created at this same spot in less than 5 years due to increased melt extent, right? An ice core from 2000 is not representative of Greenland now, it simply isn’t.

  • Daryl Doughty

    Treacle, two numbers for your consideration that you can find and verify online just as I did:

    (1) The solar insolation, expressed as terawatts, representing the averaged rate at which solar energy hits our planet, considering day, night, winter, summer, cloudy, or clear. 32,000 terawatts (a terawatt is one million million watts.

    (2) The estimated total human rate of energy production considering all manufacturing, transportation, and other processes in 2007. 16 terawatts.

    This shows us that 2000 times as much energy reaches the earth from the sun than all mankind’s activities put into the earth’s environment. Do you still think we have a predominant effect on global temperatures? That would be like an ant running up an elephant’s leg with rape in mind.

  • Back in the late 70s, I read a book titled Climates of Hunger which made this very case. The climate we’ve come to accept as normal, and the climate that supports agriculture, is rare. It’s typical only of interglacial periods which last … about as long as our current interglacial period has lasted.

  • [...] is almost certainly not the case, however, as we can see, for example, in this article from the Foresight Institute [hat tip: LA], which examines the ice-core record at the time-scale of [...]

  • Mark O'Leary

    Your argument assumes that these polar region data sets are strongly correlated to global averages. One challenge to this might be data skewing due to orbital cycles. I am guessing (I dont know – I am not a climatologist either!) that these cycles would have a different impact on the polar regions than non-polar regions – possibly complementary! So north and south pole core based measurement could be cyclically skewed – and probably co-skewed – away from global averages.
    A quick google… 400,000 years covers 16 orbital precessions, and 10 orbital axis cycles. I have no idea what the magnitude of the impact would be, and I have no idea what these cycles may look like against your graphs, but maybe a climatologist would…

  • [...] diagram above and others of great interest can be located here. Mr. Hall’s article really is a must-read. There will, of course, be doubts and discussion [...]

  • Gary Plyler

    Reconstruction of the last 1,000 years of climate has been the first step in predicting the future with super computer programs as explained below:

    Everything about all 21 super computer programs used by the IPCC to determine future global warming rely on best-determined past sensitivities to solar and volcanic effects (climate forcings) from the proxy temperature record.

    1. The elimination of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age (the handle of the hockey stick) was necessary so that past solar effects could be minimized, thereby allowing almost all of the warming in the last 75 years to be blamed on Greenhouse Gasses. Raw data (like tree-ring thickness, radioisotope of mud layers in a lake bottom, ice core analyses, etc.) are used as a proxy for reconstruction of the temperature record for 1000 AD to 1960 AD. To ensure desired results, statistical manipulation of the raw data and selecting only supporting data, cherry-picking, was suspected and later proved to make the hockey stick graph. Look closely at the plot here where the hockey stick is one of the plots:

    2. The slope of long-term 10-year running average global temperature using thermometers from 1900 to present (the blade of the hockey stick) was maximized with the sloppy gridding code, Urban Heat Island effects, hiding the declines, and even fabricating data (documented in the leaked source code comments revealed with ClimateGate). This ensured that the Greenhouse Gas sensitivity coefficients in all 21 of the super computers was maximized, and that maximizes the temperature result at year 2100 based on Greenhouse Gas increases. This thermometer data was used to replace the tree ring-divergence after 1960 and plot this over the climate history data of (1) above giving the false impression that the reconstructed 1000 AD to 1960 AD results are more accurate than they are.

    3. Because tuning of the super computer programs uses back casting, the computer outputs could always replicate the 20th Century (by design); therefore it was assumed that the models had almost everything in them. Because of (1) and (2) above, nearly all climate change predicted by the models was due to CO2 and positive feedbacks and hardly any of the climate change was for other reasons like solar, understood or not.

    4. Over the years, when better numbers for volcanic effects, black carbon, aerosols, land use, ocean and atmospheric multi-decadal cycles, etc. became available, it appears that CRU made revisions to refit the back cast, but could hardly understand what the code was doing due to previous correction factor fudging and outright fabricating, as documented in the released code as part of ClimateGate.

    5. After the IPCC averages the 21 super computer outputs of future projected warming (anywhere from 2-degrees to 7-degrees, not very precise), that output is used to predict all manner of secondary effects / catastrophes. (Fires, floods, droughts, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, insects, extinctions, diseases, civil wars, cats & dogs sleeping together, etc.)
    This results in massive amounts of government funding for the study of secondary effects, employing tens of thousands of scientists and engineers worldwide, thus the consensus.

  • Can someone please explain the scale on the y-axes of graphs 1 to 6?

    Are they celsius? Are they minus figures? I have no idea what a minus celsius measure is. It would help if the y-axis had been labelled.

    I can see the last figure is an anomaly graph but what are the first six, please?

    [The zero of celsius is the freezing point of water. Perhaps you were thinking kelvins? -jsh]

  • JamesinFlorida

    I stumbled into this site and am pleasantly surprised to find such a commonsensical discussion of the proposed “hockey stick” data. One comment regarding the silliness of changing light bulbs in the west to assuage some guilt over being over-fed and overly comfortable compared with the “developing” countries is very very clever and since all of the climate-fear-mongerers are also secular and supposedly Darwinian, why are we tinkering with our supposed future of needing to adapt or perish? It seems as if the evolutionists and Darwinian survivalists are feeling a wee bit insecure as to their future on this orb. Maybe it is God’s sense of humor to have the Darwinians actually see that they are the object of this supposed extinction event via climate change. They can see it (or more properly irrationally fear it) but are powerless to change it as it is truly beyond our control. These are the ones that produce the Science channel fear movies about comets hitting the earth and such… this is becoming pretty funny (Ha Ha) if it wasn’t so expensive to support via the taxman.

  • Patrick and Mike: I don’t agree that anything the IPCC says has got to be false. It’s clear that what they say is at the extreme end of what can be justified by the scientific literature. Climategate has shown that what’s in the scientific literature is at the extreme end of what can be tortured out of the data. Thus the IPCC are probably 2 sigma out from what the science would say without those biasses, e.g. they have a 5% chance of being right.
    One of the big mistakes of the climatologists, in my view, is pretending to be more certain of their conclusions than is warranted. Nothing is certain in this field at the moment.

  • luminous: I’ll give you NH (total rise about 1C (HADCRUT so we can call that an upper bound)) but I can’t help but think there’ll be a lot more H2O in the air from south of Greenland than north of it… But surely we can agree on this: any splicing of significantly different modalities of data (“Mike’s Nature trick”) is cheesy.

    Turboblock: Think “central” vs “coastal”. I don’t claim to have falsified the HS, although others have done what is a fair job elsewhere — I’ve just looked at some easily available data and draw the conclusion that the reigning orthodoxy in climate science before 2000 is likely enough to be right that it deserves the status of “null hypothesis” when one gets into reanalyzing the data without begging the question by using theories (GCMs) as evidence for themselves.

  • [...] Yet, the alarmism relating to the most recent global temperature rise, exaggerated as it is, is nothing but displaced, at best. Temperature trend hockey sticks abound throughout the long climate history of the world, with the current peak in the temperature trend being far from being the highest ever experienced during civilization’s relatively short history.  (See also climate histories in Greenland and in the Antarctic.) [...]

  • Martin B

    December 10th, 2009 at 9:37 AM

    I notice from your plots that when the Vikings were in Greenland, the temperature was about -30°C according to your figures. Surely if they were growing crops then, a pesky couple of degrees difference wouldn’t have presented a problem.

    BTW you do realise that the MWP has to be global and at the same time to falsify the hockey stick don’t you?”

    Apparently you didn’t look at the NOAA website that the data was taken from. The location of these ice-core samples was in south central Greenland – high up on the ice sheet. The vikings settled on the coast.

    This data set would seem to be quite sigificant, as it deals with precisely that region – high latitude ice reservoirs – where the effects of global warming are supposed to be most pronounced and most damaging. True, it’s only a proxy temperature reconstruction, but that’s all we have for most of the world, prior to the 19th century. And, as a proxy measure for temperature, I buy isotopic ratios a lot more than tree-ring thickness.

    What’s especially interesting is not just that the temperature rise over the last 150 years is not unprecedented (even if one assumes a full 1 deg. C rise since 1900), but that the rate of temperature rise over the last 150 years is in line with past events as well.

    Very interesting Mr. Hall. Thanks for presenting this.

  • Patrick M.

    “I would therefore warn people not to think that these graphs are a “gotcha”, showing that modern times are not exceptionally warm.”

    I would warn the Warmists that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that right now is the warmest time in the Holocene.

    The data we do have, scarce as it is, suggest that things were warmer at the time of Christ 2000 years ago than now (ie that bump at 0AD higher than the the MWP bump).

    I would therefore warn people not to think that the Mann hockeystick graphs are a “gotcha”, showing that modern times are exceptionally warm. They are of dubious scientific merit and say much less than the Warmists think they do.

  • Patrick M.

    “I think by now we can adopt the heuristic principle that, if it is from the IPCC, it’s got to be false.”

    Yes. We have to understand that the IPCC is a political organization and not a scientific one.
    The IPCC is a creature of the same UN that is getting these ministers hobnobbing at conferences whose main focus is hardly the science and mostly the question of how not to ‘waste’ this crisis to redistribute power to the UN and money from one group to another.

    As such, the default assumption must be the IPCC politician /political group is lying, unless proven otherwise.

    ClimateGate has exposed scientists behaving very politically (getting journal editors fired, withholding data from ‘enemies’, massaging a presentation to ‘hide’ inconvenient details, etc.)

    Let’s look at some of the bafflegab – found right here in comments!

    “The North Pole and Antarctica are losing ice.”
    False. Antarctica is gaining ice. If your baseline is 1979, then north pole is losing ice, but what about since 1930s? Temps went down from 1930s to 1979.

    “The oceans are becoming more acidic.”
    The pH of the oceans is about 8.1 and Calcium carbonate buffers the Co2 addition and oceans are more productive with lower pH. Oceans over time can store a HUGE amount of CO2 and plankton will eat it up.

    “There have been massive, damaging algae and jellyfish blooms.”
    Probably true in natural world.

    ” Fish stocks around the world are in crises.”
    Due to overfishing perhaps and not CO2.
    ” The normal ranges of insects, trees and plants are in fact changing to more northward zones.”
    One wonder – this happened at the end of the ice age too about 8,000 years ago. A bad thing? Studies are showing that more CO2 is creating MORE biomass and increasing bio-diversity thereby. Is this bad?

  • luminous beauty


    3C is the approximate regional mean anomaly for the Arctic as well as Central Greenland. What you did was splicing a thermometer reading for the whole globe, which is much, much cheesier.

  • [...] Más información: 1Climate4you – Ole Humlum 2The Foresight Institute – Some Historical Perspective [...]

  • Turboblocke

    I notice from your plots that when the Vikings were in Greenland, the temperature was about -30°C according to your figures. Surely if they were growing crops then, a pesky couple of degrees difference wouldn’t have presented a problem.

    BTW you do realise that the MWP has to be global and at the same time to falsify the hockey stick don’t you?

  • luminous: I said it was ad hoc, and splicing measurements from different modalities is always cheesy. But isotopic ice is closer to a regional than a local proxy, for obvious reasons (in fact, central Greenland is the only place we know for sure the water in that ice was not coming from!), so splicing a thermometer reading would be at least as cheesy as what I did!

  • [...] these graphs this morning. I'll briefly summarize the commentary or paste it directly as found here and here. It is NOAA data from a Greenland ice core. Above, a hockey stick. How unprecedented is [...]

  • luminous beauty


    This is cute. 20th Century anomaly for Central Greenland is actually about 3C. Oops!

  • I came here via WUWT. This is the simplest, down-to-earth discussion of temperature changes, albeit at one site, that I have read. I also find myself fully endorsing the sentiments expressed in your closing paragraphs. Thank you.

  • [...] is it? woodbe. I guess these guys are reputable! At the Foresight Institute, J. Storrs Hall had some interesting graphs made from NOAA ice core data (Alley, R.B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from [...]

  • This is one of the most illuminating things I’ve read recently on the subject of climate. Mann’s hockey stick – and its ready acceptance by learned types – rang loud alarms for me. Denial of substantial medieval warming would have to be the ultimate in denialism.

    No doubt there are matters that could be disputed about these graphs, but they do not require us to deny large slabs of known human history.

    By the way, treacle forgot to blame Sputnik.

  • pete

    I’m a PhD computer scientist — which means I know more about modelling complex systems than many climatologists. –jsh

    Although not more than the climatologists who are actually modelling complex systems using GCMs.

    Computer Scientist Steve Easterbrook has a paper on the software quality of GCMs

  • mitchell porter

    This is intriguing to see but it would be good to get it in context. You can see that the variations in the Greenland core correlate with those in the Antarctic one, but not perfectly. The 50,000-year chart for the Greenland core shows, at about 12,000 years ago, a temperature spike which approaches Holocene levels, and then plummets back to where it started, and only then does the move up to the Holocene plateau occur. This does not occur in the Vostok core. So, regional climates can vary semi-independently, and the average global temperature for a particular period will have to be inferred by aggregating all the data. I would therefore warn people not to think that these graphs are a “gotcha”, showing that modern times are not exceptionally warm. What we are seeing are just two data points out of many that get combined in the temperature history reconstructions.

  • Tom

    You do not need to question the author’s credential. Just go the link he provided for the Arctic Ice Core data and you will find yourself at NOOA website. The data is there in a tabulated form. All the author did is to present the data in graphical form, choosing time intervals to illustrate his point – and for some dramatic effect-. You do not have to to be climatologist to do that.

  • [...] can find the original at the Foresight Institute in the article “Some Historical Perspective” by J. Storrs [...]

  • tabacman

    Just a basic engineering degreed schlub could do napkin calculations to ascertain that more co2 and heat is generated by natural phenomena than all the power, heat, and gaseous sputum put into the air by humans since the beginning of mechanized civilization.
    The more serious money would be spent on finding ways to counteract either scenario – globally widespread cooling or warming – because physically we are not capable of rapid countermeasures right now. We are human and can adapt – but the more I see of what we pump out of supposed technical schools makes me wonder if we don’t deserve a rapid and painful slapping back to the stone ages. For our own foolhardiness we will pay – but it seems the latest is about the usual – one poster nailed I think – Global Funding.
    To illustrate – lets say the nonsense is real and that every possible combination of bad and inconvienent things happen to the globe over the next 50 – 100 years. Say global heating of some 10C-15C on average – and all that portends (which we cant even predict with great authority in large measure either… but).
    What could we as a human race actually DO in 50-100 years? I posit nothing of any significance – even if we pooled every resource imaginable and even dreamed up some pretty amazing new technology. So where does that leave the remaining humans? Better or worse – richer or poorer? In the longer view I would say we should be looking even farther out than that and looking at more mundane ways to survive it. Runs the range from colonizing inner and outer solar system bodies to just developing sustainable living mechanisms in the assumed worst case situation on the globe we have and everything in between.

    Decisions made in panic and hysteria are rarely good. I see this as no different = sure the media needs to hyperventilate – its what they do. But supposed calmer heads should prevail to realize that burning your house down to keep the mice out might be a bit drastic.

    I hereby also ban terms like settled science from the lex too. We know millions of unassailable facts – but it’s complete and utter hubris to think we can model the interrelationship between them and and unpredictable humans and natural patterns that may or may not be correlative – with anything like a few percentage points of confidence. We may get there – but considering we have only been upright and literate for several thousands of years – we should probably consider ourselves just getting to first grade and not consider taking the car keys and going for a joy ride just yet.

    Great site and discussion – bravo!!

  • Kasmir

    The horror! What better evidence could we have the the earth is now an inhospitable environment!

  • [...] the Foresight Institute, J. Storrs Hall had some interesting graphs made from NOAA ice core data (Alley, R.B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from [...]

  • [...] stick observed in NOAA ice core data 9 12 2009 At the Foresight Institute, J. Storrs Hall had some interesting graphs made from NOAA ice core data (Alley, R.B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from [...]

  • Philippe


    There are hundred studies which show for the most part that temperatures were higher in the Medieval Warm Period:

    Another article on this issue:

  • treacle

    This temperature-through-time argument posted here is somewhat compelling. Although without clearly reliable numbers, must be taken with some doubt.

    However taken in context of all the other changes occuring on the planet, this temperature argument pales and becomes irrelevant.

    The glaciers are dramatically melting. The North Pole and Antarctica are losing ice. The oceans are becoming more acidic. There have been massive, damaging algae and jellyfish blooms. Fish stocks around the world are in crises. The normal ranges of insects, trees and plants are in fact changing to more northward zones. Yearly weather patterns have clearly become more unpredictable (70F in February, freeze in July.. in Michigan, USA). Global “warming” or not, the climate is in fact changing.

    Our beautiful 10,000 year window within which we created agriculture and built our civilizations, is closing.

    The second question is whether human society is having an impact on the climate. What are the chances?

    Let’s see: Enormous cities ; massive use of combustion technology for transport and power ; jet & war planes ; many multiple nuclear bomb explosions and “tests” (all of which impact the environment) ; an enormous plastic trash gyre in the Eastern Pacific Ocean ; HAARP beaming electromagnetic energy to heat the ionosphere ; many hundreds of rocket & shuttle launches ; an obscene profusion of chemicals and fertilizers across the land ; enormous dam projects ; and the list goes on… to say nothing of the fact that there are now over 6.5 BILLION people on Earth. More than ever before.

    Chances are pretty good that we are affecting the environment.

    Why are you bothering to create simplistic arguments against it?

  • Ice Age

    The earth has been warming for a REALLY long time. That is why we do not live in an Ice Age and why glaciers have been melting for hundreds of years now. Just because a no name community organizer (who fooled you into voting him into office) says it is a problem does not mean it is in reality a problem. Try listening to science, not politicians.

  • Dave Wyland

    Perhaps the name is wrong. I think Global Funding is a better description than Global Warming.

  • I was directed to this post by a link in comments to Marc Ambinder’s rebuttal of Palin’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post. As a result, I’m not sure of the context, and in particular I don’t know the climatological credentials of the author, J. Storrs Hall. Is he a climatologist? (This is sort of trying to get at whether he knows what he’s talking about.)

    [I'm a PhD computer scientist -- which means I know more about modelling complex systems than many climatologists. --jsh]

  • Scott R

    “Kathy” apparently thinks changing light bulbs and insulating windows will, in some meaningful way, counteract the earth’s secular warming and cooling trends. This is the sort of unfathomable stupidity we are used to from the purveyors of AGW. It is also immoral. What “Kathy” calls “reducing our carbon footprint” translates, for much of the world’s population, into “keep yourselves in miserable poverty so that I, Kathy, can feel good about myself and my polar bears.” I retort: To hell with the polar bears. If they cannot adapt, then they should die. Millions of species have been eliminated in earth’s various environmental traumas–not one of which had to do with mankind. Time for people like Kathy to grow up and realize that their emotions do not determine physical realities. I know it’s hard for such people. They, like President Obama, believe if they give a speech or slap a bumper sticker on the car, they have “changed” the world. It’s worse than pathetic. The global warming crowd will be seen by future historians as nothing more than a quasi-religious mass mysteria that succeeded only in humiliating its adherents.

  • Rudy

    oh no!… a world without polar bears! i am somewhat curious as to how you’d explain the continued existence of polar bears when there is ample evidence that the Arctic has been ice-free many times during the recent geological past. like all species… polar bears adapt. they have a range of tolerance. if it is too narrow, they go extinct. as countless species have.

    if you need a justification to conserve resources — always a good idea, by the way — why not try something that makes a little more sense or can be evidentially substantiated. if you stick to wanting to elevate polar bears — well then you reveal all this crap to be the religion that it actually is.

  • Kathy

    Wake up Bolivar. Some of the cooler areas of the world will become new breadbaskets, such as Canada, while the US breadbasket in the midwest will dry up and blow away. And the hottest places around the equator will become even hotter. This warming will effect each and every one of us, planet-wide. And I just plain hate to contemplate a world without polar bears! So again I say, work to reduce your carbon footprint!

  • A Different Bart

    I don’t understand the scales. Graphs #5 and #6, show temperature oscillating in a range of about 20 degrees celsius between 50,000 years ago and the present. But graph #7, which covers the period from 400,000 years ago to the present, only indicates a 10 degree range of temperatures. What’s going on there?

    [The first sequence of graphs is from a Greenland glacier, the last one is from Antarctica. The Greenland ice melted in the Eemian interglacial, which was several degrees warmer than current temperatures, and thus doesn't form a record back past then. Antarctica was (and still is) colder, and goes back half a million years. --jsh]

  • Rol

    Taken from “Sources of uncertainty in ice core data”, Steig, 2008. “Ice core records are best known for the information they provide on millennial and
    longer timescales. Their potential use for shorter timescale climate and climate forcing reconstruction (e.g annually resolved-reconstructions of the last millenium) remains to be fully exploited.”

  • [...] Nanotech pioneer J. Storrs Hall of the Foresight Institute weighs in. (H/t: [...]

  • K. Smith

    The ice composition can only be translated into temperatures if the ice composition data is calibrated against actual instrumental records of temperatures. If the instrumental temperature record is unreliable, then the correlation between the layer composition and temperatures will be unreliable, which means all the core-derived temperatures back through the millennia will be unreliable.

    If the instrumental temperature record is reliable, and the isotope correlation with the temperature is very high . . . we still can’t reliably assume that the correlation remains as high when dealing with isotope concentrations well outside the range for which we have measured isotope-vs-temperature values. Variables that are (apparently) linear over the known region may well be nonlinear outside of it, which means all the core-derived temperatures outside the known region must be treated with skepticism.

  • Bolivar

    “The earth is warming, take a look at Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic. Ice is melting, oceans are rising. We all need to do everything humanly possible to slow it down.”

    And why is that? It’s going to mean unprecedented (in recent history) crop yields and better life expectancy for a large part of the world.
    Find something important to crusade about. Be happy that we’re in between ice ages…

  • John West

    Very nice splain. It all make sense. However, only the foot soldiers believe there is a scientific theory in play here. The leaders and elite of this save-the-world gang are orchestrating a global government take over of the economies and production of the world.

    Beating their theory won’t stop them. These people are serious, powerful and determined.

    This is a war.

  • pete

    1) Before Present means before 1950, so the most recent data point should be 1854.

    2) Local variations are larger than global variations, so comparing the local temperature history of Southern Greenland to the recent global record is not going to give you an accurate sense of the relative scale of past and present temperature variations. You might be better off overlaying the temperature record for one of the adjacent grid cells (you’d probably want to smooth it to get a useful comparison to the physically smoothed ice core data; also see caveat (3)).

    3) Global warming is not uniform; some places are warming faster than others and some are even cooling. If I recall correctly, Southern Greenland is one of the places that is currently cooling (something to do with complex North Atlantic physics).

  • gofer

    Why do we never see actual temps posted when years/months are said to be the “warmest” ever, etc. From what I see, it’s because most people would think it was absurd, since the temp differences are in such small increments. Also I never see any mention of “margin of error”. Is it possible to calculate temps from thousands of difference sources down to the hundredth of a degree? Is there a reliable source of actual historical temps?

  • [...] 8 PM EST: Ice core context.  An absolute must see.  (Hat tip SDA.)  As has been mentioned previously, the issue is not [...]

  • Greg

    Thanks for a great post. This is well done and really easy to understand.

    Here’s an article which also shows very long term climate changes and CO2 changes. Apparently we’re colder and more co2 deprived than most of the world’s history.

  • Kathy

    You know, whether the current global temperature rise is the result of man’s affects on the environment, or whether it’s part of a regular warming and cooling cycle really makes no difference. The earth is warming, take a look at Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic. Ice is melting, oceans are rising. We all need to do everything humanly possible to slow it down. Who cares whether a couple of idiots debated over whether to release, hide or manipulate data. It happens every day in every aspect of our lives! Now get back to work and decrease your carbon footprint!

  • John

    I think we are about to undergo a new social experiment: whether large segments of the population have it within their character to say “I was wrong.”

    A great many laypeople have bought into AGW simply because the assumption it is true saturates the media. I wonder if, now that the cat is out of the bag regarding the data manipulating shenanigans and strongarming done at the CRU for the benefit of the IPCC, the average Joe who considered himself a “green” AGW believer has it within himself to actually examine the entire issue and possibly admit he was wrong all along.

    I’m guessing not. People are defined by their beliefs and admitting to weakness in one’s beliefs is to diminish one’s self. They’d sooner wreck the global economy and cause untold horror and harm with its ramifications than admit they were wrong.

  • willis

    ” Until this transpiration rate is defined and calculated, there is a major problem with using this technique as a temperature proxy.”

    Sounds like this isn’t settled science, doesn’t it? Hide the decline!

  • craig

    uh…Sam…the industrial revolution is considered by most to have started around 1850.

    And if the range of data you are plotting is increasing (in both X and Y), how can you plot it without changing the scale? And still get it on the screen? Had he not changed the scales, you would only be looking at a small fraction of the last graph.

    What he did was put the current (apparent, but now open to debate) warming into a longer-term prespective. The mere fact that you can’t do that WITHOUT changing the Y-scale should in itself tell you something about the current hype.

    “The ‘hockey stick’ you show is not of the post-industrial increase in temperature.”

    What is it then?

    “Solar radiation is well measured and the orbit of the earth is well known, and these have provided conclusive evidence that such solar cycles cannot explain the recent warming.”

    I’d like to see this “conclusive evidence”. And their is more to it than orbital variations. Solar activity, as measured by sunspots, also seems to play a role. The fact is, sunspot activity correlates very nicely with all estimates of global temperature of the last 1,000 years or so. The MWP was marked by unusually high sunspot activity; the LIA was marked by almost no sunspots at all. Until the present cycle (the sun has been spotless for the longest period since the turn of the 20th century), sunspot activity had almost trebled since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

  • Jody: see my comment to Forrest. I used the temps exactly as they occured in the original data files.

    Sam: here with instrumental record spliced on where they match 1850-1900 (the ordinate scale is delta T from HADCRUT, celsius):


    … this is very ad hoc and can’t be taken as anything but suggestive, but it suggests that the 19th and 20th century rises were the same trend — and that trend looks like the fourth very similar uptick in a pretty straight line of them going back 3500 years, against a secular decrease of half a degree/millennium.

  • Sam Leason

    You should be more careful with your own interpretation. The ‘hockey stick’ you show is not of the post-industrial increase in temperature. Notice how your increase occurs before 1900. Also, avoid changing the scale on the Y axis to suit your needs. Finally, the past glacial and interglacial periods can be explained quite well from the changes in solar radiation resulting from changes in the geometry in various components of the earth’s orbit. Solar radiation is well measured and the orbit of the earth is well known, and these have provided conclusive evidence that such solar cycles cannot explain the recent warming.

  • Mike

    Mark Norton: I suppose you mean Jaworowski – he is Polish:

    The CO2 question remains relevant. We know already that the current temperatures are anything but “unprecedented” – but what about the current CO2? By how much does it exceed the levels in previous warm periods? Jaworowski cites quite a few papers that indicate levels of around 340 ppm in previous eras, which would cut the the current anomaly in half relative to IPCC statements.

    I think by now we can adopt the heuristic principle that, if it is from the IPCC, it’s got to be false.

  • David Gillies

    Just out of interest, what is the mechanism for temperature dependence of isotopic abundance in ice cores?

  • Mark Norton said,
    “…asserting that there is a major flaw in that the ice surface that traps the gases is not impervious – particularly to CO2 – so that there is a slow but real change in the ratio and extent of gases in the core over time.”

    If this is the case, that CO2 outgassed over time, then the older warm periods were even warmer than the cores indicate, given that warming is based on CO2 content of the core layers.

  • John Clifford

    @Mark, the problem with that argument (CO2 levels lower in the ice than should be recorded due to outgassing) is that if it IS true then the temperature swings thousands of years ago were even more extreme than are shown on the graph. In other words, such an error tends to smooth out the data instead of really showing the temperature swings.

    I don’t doubt that increased CO2 concentrations can cause the average temperature to rise, but I think unless CO2 gets significantly more predominant in the atmosphere (orders of magnitude) the temperature increase will be ‘in the noise’ of the fluctuations caused by solar output… the chief determinant of our temperature.

  • Very interesting.

    But I understand that there is one single tree on the Yamal Peninsula of Russia that holds the key to the temperature record for the past 5 billion years. And that tree tells us that we are experiencing unprecedented warming, with anthropogenic greenhouse gas footprints all over it.

    We must trust the 25,000 scientists in the IPCC who have the official UN stamp of approval. We are only laymen and laywomen, who cannot think for ourselves. Trust the 25,000,000 scientists who support the 25,000 IPCC scientists — and who all agree that humans are to blame for catastrophic warming.

    We have an imperative, you see, to stop this catastrophe by redistributing massive amounts of wealth from advanced countries to third world dictators. It’s the least we can do for science and social justice.

  • John Skookum

    Nicely done. This is better science than the tree ring-witchcraft, and confirms that my initial impression of the “global warming” crisis 25 years ago was correct. It is mere statistical noise as compared to natural fluctuations.

  • Kenneth Greenlee

    The last graph is an EKG. Where are we? Neo?

  • Bart

    “CO2 can migrate in ice, but all that does is smooth out the CO2 record. But CO2 is not the temperature proxy — it’s the isotopic fractions of 18Oxygen and deuterium in the actual ice itself.”

    Yes, but… how much can they migrate? It wouldn’t take heavy filtering to diminish relatively short spikes significantly. Moreover, how do we test it?

    “It was a defining moment in my intellectual life, something like learning the truth about Santa Claus.”

    I bet there’s a lot of that going around in the wake of Climategate. The most vehement and obnoxious defenses of the shenanigans at UEA, which I have seen on various blogs, seem to come from youthful disputants who were sitting on Santa’s knee at the mall in the not-too-distant past.

  • Ted

    I’ve only gotten through the first two of the Durant books, but I suspect they were making an intentional jest. That’s not to say that they weren’t Democrats who didn’t like Eisenhower, but they liked to drop little jokes throughout the text, “Thus we should not dissmiss [whoever it was] though he ate with his hands from a common bowl, like William Shakespear..”

    “The Northern barbarians have always descended on the South: The [whoever it was] on India, the Vikings on Europe, the English on the world..”

  • Mike

    Mr. Norton, sort of like not wanting to trust the ‘corrected’ temperature data, but, instead, wanting to look at the original readings? When the fiasco of the ‘lost’ data is combined with NASA refusing to release its data base, I have lost all confidence in any global warming claim.


  • Jody

    Nice graphs but I don’t understand the Y axis. The first 6 graphs use a scale that appears to be -30 to -50c. The – (negative) to what base point? The final one is 2 to -8 what? I tend to agree that we are not experiencing abnormal warming but just want to understand what I am seeing. Anybody able to clarify?

  • gjg

    My son and I have analyzed GISS data at matched urban and rural sites in the US that cover 111 years of data. The urban sites are warming but the rural sites are not. We made a video and posted it on YouTube as “Global Warming Urban Heat Effect.” It is very interesting. I am a molecular biologist and do a lot of data analysis. Please watch it.

    So simple a sixth grader can under stand it.

    (If I did a duplicate comment, please delete one.)

  • John

    Interesting how many people come out to argue against this data, which seems far more convincing, and fits the observations with small fraction of climate change that has occurred during known human history.

    Why is this data less believable than other data (tree rings for example) that have there own logical compromises, and have been “massaged” to fit a different narrative?

  • [...] Instapundit, we have some poor soul who tries to demonstrate that the climate has been changing long before we started appointing bureaucrats in charge of [...]

  • From what I understand of the ice-core methodology, temperatures are estimated from the ratio of oxygen isotopes. The theory behind this is that heavier oxygen makes for heavier water vapor, which rains or snows out at lower latitudes. The colder it gets, the more light oxygen you find in the ice cores. (I think.)

  • Great sequence of graphs, Josh! Wish everyone could see it. Really helps with perspective on this issue.

  • Forrest: degrees C. The Greenland ones are actual (yep, it’s cold there), the Vostok are delta of current temp.

  • Forrest Higgs

    And what are the units on the vertical axis of all those charts? :-)

  • CO2 can migrate in ice, but all that does is smooth out the CO2 record. But CO2 is not the temperature proxy — it’s the isotopic fractions of 18Oxygen and deuterium in the actual ice itself.

  • Mark Norton

    I recently read an argument (couldn’t lay my hands on it to quote, will keep looking) but the gist of it was that one of the inventors and major practitioners of ice core temperature readings (a Czech I think)was asserting that there is a major flaw in that the ice surface that traps the gases is not impervious – particularly to CO2 – so that there is a slow but real change in the ratio and extent of gases in the core over time. Until this transpiration rate is defined and calculated, there is a major problem with using this technique as a temperature proxy.