Tree rings sound out future climate warning

UK researchers are using tree rings to unlock a 10,000-year record of climate change.

A climate scientist from the University of Exeter has used radiocarbon techniques to compile a year-by-year chronology of the Sun’s activity over the 10 millennia.

Professor Chris Turney said his research also revealed how the impact of past climate shifts affected humans, adding that these findings also acted as a warning for future generations.

Professor Turney presented his research at an international climate change conference, co-hosted by the University of Exeter and the UK’s Met Office.

The three-day gathering, called Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: Dangerous Rates of Change, has brought together many of the world’s top climate scientists to discuss the future consequences of global warming.

Using 7,470 year-old Irish bog oaks, the University of Exeter professor worked with a team of scientists to measure changes in the radioactive version of carbon preserved in the tree rings.

He explained that the records from trees preserved in peat bogs offered a precise insight into how much sunlight the ancient woodland received each year.

“By matching the distinctive tree ring patterns, an absolute, year-by-year record of the number of trees growing on the bogs can be made,” Professor Turney said.

“Amazingly, this measure of tree population mirrors the climate cycles over the last 10,000 years.

“Basically, when the Atlantic waters get cooler, Ireland gets wetter. So when the North Atlantic sneezes, Ireland gets a cold.”

The study also involved mapping the records from bog trees against Ireland’s comprehensive archaeological records.

This revealed the dramatic impact of climate on past human populations, which were forced to radically change their lifestyles during times of climate change.

This included not only mass migration but also groups of people building defences to protect themselves through difficult times.

“This is a fantastic example of how we can get lessons from the past,” he concluded.

“Relatively small changes in climate seem to drive massive changes in people’s behaviour.

“When the chips are down, people become more defensive and look to protect what few resources they have.

“It’s not a very positive omen for the future.”

Source: University of Exeter press release

Date: 23/09/2008

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