What evidence is there for the hockey stick?

The “hockey stick” describes a reconstruction of past temperature over the past 1000 to 2000 years using tree-rings, ice cores, coral and other records that act as proxies for temperature (Mann 1999). The reconstruction found that global temperature gradually cooled over the last 1000 years with a sharp upturn in the 20th Century. The principal result from the hockey stick is that global temperatures over the last few decades are the warmest in the last 1000 years.


Figure 1: Northern Hemisphere temperature changes estimated from various proxy records shown in blue (Mann 1999). Instrumental data shown in red. Note the large uncertainty(grey area) as you go further back in time.

A critique of the hockey stick was published in 2004 (McIntyre 2004), claiming the hockey stick shape was the inevitable result of the statistical method used (principal components analysis). They also claimed temperatures over the 15th Century were derived from one bristlecone pine proxy record. They concluded that the hockey stick shape was not statistically significant.

An independent assessment of Mann’s hockey stick was conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Wahl 2007). They reconstructed temperatures employing a variety of statistical techniques (with and without principal components analysis). Their results found slightly different temperatures in the early 15th Century. However, they confirmed the principal results of the original hockey stick – that the warming trend and temperatures over the last few decades are unprecedented over at least the last 600 years.


Figure 2: Original hockey stick graph (blue – MBH1998) compared to Wahl & Ammann reconstruction (red). Instrumental record in black (Wahl 2007).

While many continue to fixate on Mann’s early work on proxy records, the science of paleoclimatology has moved on. Since 1999, there have been many independent reconstructions of past temperatures, using a variety of proxy data and a number of different methodologies. All find the same result – that the last few decades are the hottest in the last 500 to 2000 years (depending on how far back the reconstruction goes). What are some of the proxies that are used to determine past temperature?

Changes in surface temperature send thermal waves underground, cooling or warming the subterranean rock.  To track these changes, underground temperature measurements were examined from over 350 bore holes in North America, Europe, Southern Africa and Australia (Huang 2000). Borehole reconstructions aren’t able to give short term variation, yielding only century-scale trends. What they find is that the 20th century is the warmest of the past five centuries with the strongest warming trend in 500 years.


Figure 3: Global surface temperature change over the last five centuries from boreholes (thick red line). Shading represents uncertainty. Blue line is a five year running average of HadCRUT global surface air temperature (Huang 2000).

Stalagmites (or speleothems) are formed from groundwater within underground caverns. As they’re annually banded, the thickness of the layers can be used as climate proxies. A reconstruction of Northern Hemisphere temperature from stalagmites shows that while the uncertainty range (grey area) is significant, the temperature in the latter 20th Century exceeds the maximum estimate over the past 500 years (Smith 2006).

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