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A new paper, looking back at the climate of the past two thousand years, published in the journal “Climate of the Past,” will either cause something of a stir, or provide confirmation of what some regard as having already emerged from the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The title of the paper is, “The extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere temperature in the last two millennia: reconstructions of low-frequency variability,” by B Christiansen of the Danish Meteorological Institute and F C Ljungqvist of Stockholm University. The link to the journal is here, and the paper can be read in its entirety here.

The climate of the past few hundred years is of clear importance because it allows scientists to put today’s warm period into context, and provides some evidence of the influence of the quantity of greenhouse gasses that mankind has injected into the atmosphere. In much literature and during many debates statements to the effect that it is warmer now than it has been for thousands of years are frequently used.

As the authors point out the major problem with reconstructing the climate of the past few thousand years is that the so-called instrumental period – for which we have direct measurements – only stretches back as far as the middle of the 19th century. To overcome this researchers in this paper compile an impressive number of temperature proxies situated in the extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere. There are 91 in total, comprising ice-cores, tree-rings (density and width), lake and sea sediments, historical records, speleotherms, and pollen. All of them go back to 1500 AD and 32 go back as far as 1 AD.

The reconstruction of past climate has improved significantly in the past few years due to the availability of more proxies and better statistical analysis. The authors acknowledge this and point out the differences that are emerging from the reconstructions conducted about a decade ago. They mention two such reconstructions performed by Michael Mann that they say, perhaps typically for the period, show little variability. They add they display, “little evidence for previous temperature anomalies comparable to those of the 20th century.” The authors conclude that previous climate reconstructions “seriously underestimate” variability and trends in the climate record of the past two millennia.

This new analysis shows that the warming we have seen in the late-20th century is not unprecedented, as can be seen in figure 1. Seen in the reconstruction is a well-defined peak of temperature between 950–1050 AD. They also find that the first millennium is warmer than the second.

The researchers conclude: “The level of warmth during the peak of the MWP (Medieval Warm Period) in the second half of the 10th century, equaling or slightly exceeding the mid-20th century warming, is in agreement with the results from other more recent large-scale multi-proxy temperature reconstructions.”

Ljungqvist et al. also show that, “on centennial time-scales, the MWP is no less homogeneous than the Little Ice Age if all available proxy evidence, including low-resolution records are taken into consideration in order to give a better spatial data coverage.”

In conclusion this impressive piece of research makes a significant contribution to a growing body of evidence that both the global extent of the MWP, and the temperature was similar, or even greater than the Current Warm Period, even though the atmospheric CO2 concentrations today are some 40% greater than they were during the MWP.

Some argue that without anthropogenic greenhouse gasses the world would have cooled in the past few decades. That might be the case, but the statement that it is warmer now than it has been for thousands of years is untrue. The rate of warming seen recently is also not unprecedented.

In the context of climate sensitivity – the real world climatic reaction to increasing greenhouse gasses – and climate model uncertainty, it is an interesting question to ask: if Nature alone in the past can produce temperatures like those we see today, why can’t she do so again?