Milankovitch Forcing and Tree Ring Proxies

Mar 2, 2021. This post was written in 2015 but, for some reason, I didn’t publish it at the time.  Seems just as valid today as when it was written.


Esper et al 2012, Orbital Forcing of Tree Ring Data pdf SI, is one of the few paleoclimate articles in past decade which really made me stop and think. It connected two obvious points:

  • high-latitude tree ring proxies are sensitive to summer (JJA, even JJ) temperature, not annual temperature.
  • high-latitude NH summer insolation, which has long had special interest as the “prime forcing” of Milankovitch theory of ice ages, had declined by ~6 w m-2 over the past 2000 years, the period covered by many popular IPCC temperature reconstructions. An amount that is approximately four times larger than anthropogenic forcing from CO2 since 1750 AD (~1.5 w m-2).

From these two points, they made plausible and compelling observation that the very large changes in high-latitude Holocene summer insolation should be visible in long high-latitude tree ring chronologies, especially those chronologies reaching back to the Roman period and earlier.

But it isn’t, as they demonstrated in an important graphic, which, unfortunately, was buried in the SI where it passed unnoticed. (One of the authors drew my attention to it several years ago or I too would have missed it.) Long tree ring chronologies have negligible millennial-scale variance – one more reason to distrust the temperature reconstructions of PAGES2K and IPCC.

Esper Figure S1

Here is the interesting figure S1 from Esper et al 2012. It compared three long tree ring width chronologies (grey-black) to Norwegian glacier equilibrium line (blue) and Yamal treeline (km north of present treeline.)  While the glacier equilibrium line (and Yamal tree line) have both migrated lower (southerly) with

However, as shown in Figure S1 of Esper et al 2012 (shown below), these long chronologies have more of less zero millennium-scale variability over the past 7000 years i.e. in addition to other defects in tree ring chronologies as temperature proxies, they only show high-frequency variability.  In contrast, Holocene-scale changes were visible in equilibrium lines of Norwegian glaciers and the treeline in Yamal.

Figure 2. Esper et al 2012 Figure S1. Original Caption: Showing multi-millennial TRW records from Sweden, Finland, and Russia (all in grey)
together with reconstructions of the glacier equilibrium line in Norway(blue), northern treeline in Russia (green), and JJA temperatures in the 60-70°N European/Siberian sector from orbitally forced ECHO-G7,8 (red) and ECHAM5/MPIOM9 (orange) CGCM runs10. All records, except for the treeline data (in km) were normalized relative to the AD 1500-2000 period. Resolution of model and TRW data were reduced (to ~ 30 years) to match the glacier data. Comment: 
Tree ring width chronologies (grey) are Grudd et al, 2002 (Tornetrask, northern Sweden); Helama et al 2010 (Finland); and Hantemirov and Shiyatov 2002 (Yamal); Norwegian glacier equilibrium lines (blue) are Aspvatnet (Bakke et al 2005a) and Lyngen (Bakke et al 2005b); treeline northing (in km) is from Yamal (Hantemirov and Shiyatov, 2002). 


In their important diagram in the Supplementary Information, Esper et al showed proxies back to 7000 BP, but neglected to show or discuss insolation changes earlier in the Holocene. These are even more dramatic as shown in figure below. Summer insolation at 50N has decreased by more than 35 w m-2 (!!!) since the early Holocene (10000 BP) and is presently at levels characteristic of the Last Glacial Maximum (19000 BP). The disintegration of the Laurentide ice sheet, previously covering Canada, took place primarily in the period of maximum summer insolation (12000-8000 BP). I’ve shown the scale of modern anthropogenic forcing in red for reference.

In older paleoclimate texts, paleoclimatologists reported signs of “neo-glaciation” during the past 4000 years, consistent with Milankowitch factors.  In the 19th century, ice-rafted debris (IRD) was observed at Hvitarvatn lake for the first time since the LGM due to expanded local glaciers. (This proxy has been repeatedly discussed at Climate Audit.) Varve thicknesses at Hvitarvatn also increased dramatically in the Little Ice Age, reaching their maximum in the 19th and early 20th century. BSi productivity at Hvitarvatn was at its maximum from 9000-5000 BP, slightly after the insolation maximum – presumably delayed until LGM glacier had sufficiently receded.

Climate Audit readers will recall that PAGES2K (2013) used Hvitarvatn data upside-down – interpreting wide varves at the height of the Little Ice Age – as evidence of warmth, rather than the opposite, as I noticed almost immediately – see ^. Aside from the use of data upside down being an embarrassing, almost Mannian, gaffe, one has to wonder at the apparent lack of understanding of underlying data on the part of the multiproxy collaters. I have an identical beef in respect to Baffin Island data. Glaciers in Baffin Island – a past center of Laurentide glaciation – similarly expanded in the Little Ice Age through the 19th century. 19th and early 20th century varve thicknesses from Baffin Island, where the time series data pattern is astonishingly similar to Iceland, are nonetheless interpreted by PAGES2K (and IPCC) as evidence of warmth.

Because tree ring width chronologies were unresponsive to large but slow changes in insolation, Esper et al observed that temperature reconstructions relying on long tree ring chronologies (most of the popular IPCC two millennium chronologies) would be similarly unresponsive. Esper stated this conclusion as follows:

an evaluation of long-term temperature reconstructions, even over the past 7,000 years from across northern Eurasia, demonstrates that TRW-based records fail to show orbital signatures found in low-resolution proxy archives and climate model simulations (Supplementary Fig. S1). These discrepancies not only reveal that dendrochronological records are limited in preserving millennial scale variance, but also suggest that hemispheric reconstructions, integrating these data, might underestimate natural climate variability.

This conclusion impacts PAGES2K, Mann et al 2008 and all other temperature reconstructions relied upon by IPCC.

Norwegian Glacier Equilibrium Lines

Details on the two Norwegian glacier equilibrium line series are shown below (slightly different horizontal scale).  At both locations, glaciers are believed to be absent in the early Holocene (during highest summer insolation) and to have formed around 5000-4000 BP (neo-glaciation).  During the late Holocene, the glaciers expanded until ~2000 BP with maximum Holocene extent in the Little Ice Age – a pattern that is characteristic in many locations. During the 20th century, there has been a noticeable retreat of the glaciers – back to levels characteristic of the early first millennium.

Yamal Treeline

The treeline series illustrated in Esper et al 2012 was derived from Hantemirov and Shiyatov Figure 2 (but excluding its Early Holocene portion). It showed mid-Holocene treelines extended approximately 30 km north of present treelines. However, this 30 km figure represented the northern limit of the survey, NOT the actual Holocene treeline. By the time of Hantemirov’s thesis in 2009, the survey – and the mid-Holocene treeline – had been extended nearly 120 km north of the current treeline (see middle panel). It appears that the Holocene treeline may have been even further north: in 1941, Tikhonov reportedly observed sub-fossil Holocene trees at 70N, approximately 275 km north of the present treeline. So, while Esper et al were right to note that Holocene treeline was further north, their diagram dramatically under-estimated the actual distance further north of the Holocene treeline, not just absolutely, but in respect to what was known in Russian literature at the date of their article.

Note that, in the 20th century, the Yamal treeline finally reversed its long march south, though still located far south of its Holocene location. This reversal corresponds to the 20th century reversal of the equilibrium line of Norwegian small glaciers – neither effect being apparent in the Esper et al figure.

Vinther et al 2009

The long decline in Holocene

Vinther et al 2009 (Nature) is a seminal article on the interpretation of Greenland d18O which makes the popular Alley (2000) temperature reconstruction from GISP2 totally obsolete.  Vinther observed that the elevation of the Greenland ice sheet had decreased substantially over the Holocene and that this had a material impact on d18O values at the summit (where GISP2 and GRIP are located): by flattening out the curve through the Holocene. Vinther observed that elevation changes through the Holocene were negligible at Renland (Greenland) and Agassiz (Ellesmere Island) and proposed (convincingly in my opinion) that the d18O records at these locations provided a more accurate record of climate change through the Holocene, and could even be used to estimate elevation changes at the summit of the ice sheet (where GISP2 was located.) Rather than being stable through the Holocene, Renland d18O showed a steady decline through the Holocene.



Over the past two millennia, the Norwegian glacier equilibrium line series in Esper et al Figure S1 (blue in excerpt at right) do have a sort of hockey stick shape that is not derived from ex post screening, stripbark bristlecone ring widths or other Mannian tricks. However, in a longer Holocene context, the reversal is both modest in scale and in a direction that mitigated intensifying neo-glaciation from Milankovitch factors.  One possible interpretation of this data is that anthropogenic CO2 has mitigated and even slightly reverse the Milankovitch forcing into potentially much expanded NH glaciation (compare to Ganopolski’s “near miss” article).



  1. Posted Mar 2, 2021 at 5:22 PM | Permalink

    Interesting. One typo. The first paragraph in the Esper Figure S1 trails off …


  2. milodonharlani
    Posted Mar 2, 2021 at 5:59 PM | Permalink

    Since the glacier equilibrium line shows the Modern Warm Period comparable to the Medieval WP position, ie ~1000 BP, the recent retreat could be natural, or a mix of natural and man-made.

  3. AntonyIndia
    Posted Mar 3, 2021 at 12:30 AM | Permalink

    The original Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change Mandate:
    The IPCC was established to provide the decision-makers and others interested in climate change with an objective source of information about climate change. The IPCC does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Its role is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

    Politicians don’t do longterm (millenia!) or Natural causes. Groups like PAGES2K depend on politicians funding their further research, so it is all about following income, not following evidence.

  4. Posted Mar 3, 2021 at 12:34 AM | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

  5. Posted Mar 3, 2021 at 10:11 AM | Permalink

    Great post Steve. You’re right, of course, that nothing has changed over the six years – we still have 12 years left.
    It seems that Esper is more a genuine scientist than the average Mannian dendrochronologist. But it will take a lot more funding to straighten things out. His latest paper advises that maximum latewood density beats the pants off of tree ring width as a temperature proxy, and since most tree studies lack it there should be a new round of expeditions and sample collection with densitometers in hand. Although latewood density still has the divergence problem it tracks mostly true until 2004 (rather than 1960). Note: Esper did not mention about the divergence problem from Holocene NH insolation (he found).

  6. Bob Ernest
    Posted Mar 5, 2021 at 6:52 AM | Permalink

    The paragraph after Esper Figure 1 abruptly ends in the “middle” of a sentence after the word “with”.

    I am guessing something was left out from a copy paste error.

    • Clayton Oberg
      Posted Aug 15, 2021 at 6:06 PM | Permalink

      I’ve been retired for several years but worked as a geophysicist for close to 40 years prior to that. I should know this but I don’t understand why wider varves should designate cooler temperatures. Can anyone help me?

  7. Coldish
    Posted Mar 8, 2021 at 10:20 AM | Permalink

    Good to see you posting here again, Steve. Could you refer me to an explanation of how the Milankovich-induced variation in insolation energy at 50N is calculated? Are there tables somewhere?
    I found your previous post re the Antarctic peninsula ice core interesting and might post a question there.

    • Coldish
      Posted Mar 10, 2021 at 5:34 AM | Permalink

      Please ignore my request of March 8. The variation in insolation with time and NH latitude during the last 2 millennia is shown on supplementary figure S13 of the Esper at al paper.

  8. scrout
    Posted Mar 11, 2021 at 1:15 PM | Permalink

    As long as there is that ONE tree…

  9. Posted Mar 12, 2021 at 5:07 PM | Permalink

    I would think that the insolation changes alone during the Holocene would dramatically affect tree growth rates and cast strong doubt on Holocene tree ring reconstructions.

    I guess it leaves me yearning for someone with the time and knowledge to go in and try to provide a proper analysis.

  10. See - owe to Rich
    Posted Mar 24, 2021 at 2:45 PM | Permalink

    Steve, I rarely visit ClimateAudit anymore, but I do still receive your emails when new postings are made. I am glad to see this one, and that your mind is still active. I miss the halcyon days of 2007 when I first visited and there was so much going on. Unfortunately the end of The Great Pause in 2015 has allowed alarmists to get in the car and drive almost anywhere they want politically.

    It does seem strange that tree ring widths are not a good proxy for temperature or NH summer insolation. Can they make up for it with still decent autumn insolation?


  11. igsy
    Posted Mar 29, 2021 at 3:05 PM | Permalink

    An enjoyable and much appreciated read. The subject matter and your treatment of it, Steve, remains accessible and uniquely interesting even after all these years. Hard to believe it’s the best part of a quarter of a century since MBH98.

  12. Posted Apr 10, 2021 at 8:51 AM | Permalink

    “In their important diagram in the Supplementary Information, Esper et al showed proxies back to 7000 BP, but neglected to show or discuss insolation changes earlier in the Holocene. These are even more dramatic as shown in figure below.”

    Is the figure missing below the paragraph Steve? I’d like to see it!

  13. MS25
    Posted Aug 15, 2021 at 5:52 PM | Permalink

    “Summer insolation at 50N has decreased by more than 35 w m-2 (!!!) since the early Holocene (10000 BP) and is presently at levels characteristic of the Last Glacial Maximum (19000 BP).”

    This is not simply a geometrical redistribution towards other areas of the planet, because high insolation only in the Arctic is an albedo flipper, turning white ice/snow-cover into dark ocean/soil, thus allowing huge amounts of energy from the approx 500W/m2 top of atmosphere to warm earth instead of being reflected.

    Present Milankovich cooling is enhanced by the current insolation maximum in Antarctica (usually Arctic min and Antarctic max do no coincide). Only in Antarctica max insolation has little effect, too cold to melt ice, too cloudy to melt sea ice, thus the extra energy there is simply reflected, but due to geometrical redistribution is missing elsewhere.

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] By Stephen McIntyre, Climate audit, Mar 2, 2021Milankovitch Forcing and Tree Ring Proxies […]

  2. […] that recent warming is rapid and unprecedented for a thousand years of human history. For example, the most recent post on his “Climate Audit” blog is a piece about tree ring proxies posted March 2, but was […]

  3. […] Klimawissenschaftler immer wieder behaupten, dass Fehler in ihren „Hockeyschläger“-Proxy-Rekonstruktionen keine Rolle spielen – dass es keine Rolle spielt, ob sie Daten auf dem Kopf stehend verwenden; […]

  4. […] Klimawissenschaftler immer wieder behaupten, dass Fehler in ihren „Hockeyschläger“-Proxy-Rekonstruktionen keine Rolle spielen – dass es keine Rolle spielt, ob sie Daten auf dem Kopf stehend verwenden; […]

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