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Matthew Collins, Timothy J. Osborn, Simon F. B. Tett, Keith R. Briffa, and Fritz H. Schweingruber

Abstract

Validation of the decadal to centennial timescale variability of coupled climate models is limited by the scarcity of long observational records. Proxy indicators of climate, such as tree rings, ice cores, etc., can be utilized for this purpose. This study presents a quantitative comparison of the variability of the third version of the Hadley Centre ocean–atmosphere coupled model with a network of temperature-sensitive tree-ring densities covering the northern high latitudes. The tree-ring density records are up to 600 years long, and temperature reconstructions based on two different methods of removing the bias due to changing tree age are used. The first is a standard method that may remove low-frequency variability on timescales of the order of the tree life span (i.e., multidecadal to century timescales). The second (age-band decomposition) maintains low-frequency variability by only comparing similar age tree rings at each site, thus avoiding the need to remove the age effect (but at the cost of greater uncertainty in the earlier years when fewer tree cores are available). The variability of the model control simulation, which represents only the internal variability of the climate system, agrees reasonably well with the tree-ring reconstructions using the standard method at the regional level, although the model may underestimate the variance of mean Northern Hemisphere land temperature by as much as a factor of 1.8 on all timescales if one takes account of the uncertainty in the tree-ring reconstructions. Agreement with the age-band decomposition tree-ring reconstructions is less good with the model underestimating the hemispheric variance by as much as a factor of 2.1 on all timescales and by as much as a factor of 3.0 on decadal to centennial timescales. Underestimation of the natural variability of climate by the model would be serious as it may lead to false detections of climate change or erroneously low uncertainty estimates in future climate predictions. However, it is shown that some of this underestimation may be due to the lack of natural climate forcing in the model control simulation due, for example, to solar variability and volcanic eruptions. The study suggests that further quantification of the uncertainties in the proxy data, and inclusion of natural climate forcings in the model simulations, are important steps in making comparisons of climate models with the proxy record over the last 1000 years.

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