Some climate spinners are no doubt having a field day with the van Hoof et al. paper Steve Bloom pointed us to. It does, after all, say something critical of the IPCC. But if you read the paper itself, you will see that spinners shouldn't be happy; a conclusion I get in reading the paper is that climate is less sensitive to solar and volcanic variations, and CO2 is more variable than previously thought.
Let us take a look at the content. I hope you already have, as I encouraged when Steve first mentioned it. In doing it myself, I'm largely reading it as a nonspecialist. While I have studied more things outside physical oceanography than typical for a physical oceanographer (on the scale a things, by the way, a fairly broadly educated bunch), the biology of plant stomata is not on that list. On the other hand, a good knowledge of how science works gets you pretty far, and you don't need to be a scientist for that.
The central experimental idea is that the density of stomata in plant leaves goes up when there is less CO2 in the atmosphere, and down when there is more. (Stoma being 'mouth' and stomata being a bunch of mouths -- the leaves breathe air in through these mouths.) The Oak (genus Quercus) has been used to infer older CO2 levels before, and these authors do so again. It's more to the novel side that they're trying to infer much shorter term variations than has typically been done before. But even that (their citations 20-24) is not entirely new by now. If you can find Oak leaves (say in swamps) and date when they're from, you then have a way of reconstructing past CO2 levels in the atmosphere that is entirely independent of ice cores. You might also have a method which doesn't have the averaging and delay problems that ice cores have. On the other hand, you have a method which probably has other problems. (All data have problems. That isn't the question; whether the problems affect your conclusions is the question.) The prime novelty in this paper is now to apply the method to the last 1000 years and consider what it may tell us about the climate system.
A quick question is how reliable the method might be. In results and discussion, and figure 1, we get an idea. On the counting stomata side, we're looking at something whose standard deviation ranges up to almost 18 ppmv (parts per million by volume -- the usual unit for CO2 concentrations; the v is often left off), with an average over the whole set of about 6 ppmv. Since the authors are looking at their largest signal being 34 ppmv, the 18 ppmv standard deviation is not small, though the 6 ppmv should be good enough. So we'll set a reminder to ourselves to see if the conclusion depends sensitively on this '34'. Turns out that a conclusion relies on 34 being different from 12; so the 6 ppmv standard deviation is definitely good enough.
In figure 1b, we're shown the regression scatter plot between stomatal index and CO2 values. Though it isn't mentioned this way, eyeball suggests that the CO2 levels inferred have less scatter at low CO2 levels (higher stomatal index levels). My being a nonprofessional, though, means that there might be some obvious, to a professional, bit of biology which says that I'm over-reading the graph. Taking the figure as given shows why there's typically a substantial standard deviation in the inferred CO2 levels -- the stomatal index doesn't have a tight correspondence to CO2.
So we have a bit of a concern about how faithful a record the oak leaves give. The authors address this by looking at how the oak leaf record they construct compares to the ice core record from Antarctica, after processing it through a filter which has a similar averaging and delay behavior. The result (figure 1d, red vs. blue curves) shows pretty good agreement. Though there's some wide error bars to use (the gray band), the two curves from wildly different sources agree pretty well in the few decades and up time scale. In saying 'few decades and up', what it means is that every single bump on the curves don't line up exactly. But if you look at averages over 30-50 years, they do compare pretty closely. Obviously an area for research is to attack exactly why there are any differences at all.
Now let's turn to the significance of the work if we take the reconstruction as given. As nonprofessionals, we can't go much farther now with whether we should do so, but we've got some pointers to ourselves about what to look at further if we were of a mind to pursue it. The ice cores, partly due to their time-averaging, only show a variation in the period discussed (1000-1500) of at most 12 ppmv. That, versus the 34 ppmv difference the authors find from their different recorder -- one we might expect to have much finer time resolution. If free variations of CO2 are much larger than previously thought, then more of the climate would be CO2-driven than previously thought. This continues an idea (as far as I know) William Ruddiman started (see citation 13). Tripling the CO2 contribution in the pre-industrial period also means that prior estimates of climate sensitivity to volcanoes and solar variations would have been overestimates.
This is why folks who are going to leap on 'IPCC was wrong' parts of the paper really shouldn't be happy. The conclusion is that climate is less sensitive to solar and volcanic, and that the natural carbon cycle is more prone to variation. Independently of any of this, however, we know that the recent 100 ppm rise was due to human activity. (See Jan Schloerer's CO2 rise FAQ if you wonder about this.) Whatever caused the 34 ppmv variation observed in this study hasn't yet been going on.
Now let's see if we know anything outside the paper that is relevant. The parts inside look reasonable. The prime thing which struck me is the 34 ppmv variation, occurring in only 120 or so years (1200 to 1320 or so by eye). That's a lot of CO2 to be released in a short period by natural means. The authors mention that it's contemporary with a warming of the North Atlantic, which is the right sign of change -- warmer water holds less CO2. But they don't present a quantitative argument about the water being enough warmer over a large enough part of the world to have released that much CO2. Time and space are limited in a PNAS paper so this isn't the issue it would be in a different source. But it's something to pursue. Prompted by this, though, I arrive at a different biological question. Or geological; or both. That is, the places where Oak leaves get buried in such a way that you can dig them up 1000 years later to analyze stomata have to be pretty special. Could such a special locale exert a local effect, say that when it's warmer stuff decomposes faster -- releasing more CO2 but only mattering to local trees? If so, then some portion of the 34 vs. 12 ppmv signal is a local effect, and the discrepancy between leaves and ice cores is reduced. Then again, this may not be a factor. Not knowing the biology leaves me in that position of needing to find more informed sources.
To that end, I'm sending this blog note and address to the corresponding author and inviting him to respond either on the blog or by email. Hank Roberts (you've seen him here a few times) brought up the idea elsewhere, that it might be a good thing for people to let authors know when their science is being discussed in a blog. Thanks for the idea Hank.
You should also see a new icon next to this note. It's from Research Blogging, and the idea is to tag blog notes about scientific papers. Then readers who'd like to see research-oriented blogging can go to the main site and have a summary feed of such postings.