Natural Environmental Change: The Last 3 Million Years

By A. M. Mannion | Go to book overview

6

The record of environmental change in tree rings and historical and meteorological records

6.1

Introduction

In addition to the archives of palaeoenvironmental information referred to in Chapter 5, there are numerous other archives that provide valuable data. Such records are spatially and temporally fragmented but nevertheless provide the means for the reconstruction of local and sometimes regional environmental change. While many of the archives considered in Chapter 5 provide evidence for environmental change over relatively long time periods, i.e. 5K years or more, tree rings and documentary records provide evidence for environmental change during shorter periods, especially during the historic period.

Dendrochronology (the use of tree-ring sequences for dating) was developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It is an incremental method of age estimation, rather like the varve sequences (Section 1.2.2) in lake basins. Tree rings, however, show considerable variation between years because their width, density and composition reflect the prevailing environmental conditions. Consequently, tree rings provide not only a means of age determination, but also palaeoclimatological and palaeoenvironmental information. Whilst the longest tree-ring chronologies extend back c. 10K years, the tree-ring sequences used for the reconstruction of climate are generally concerned with the last millennium, as discussed below.

Historical records, in contrast, are many and varied. Accounts of sea voyages, accounts of explorers about newly discovered lands, weather diaries, estate inventories, and art (including museum pictures), etc., all provide information on past environments. Similarly, records of droughts, floods and famines provide information on catastrophic events and their periodicity, as do records of dates for the first flowering of certain plants, e.g. cherry blossom in Japan. Such records are proxy records for past climatic conditions. Such conditions can be assessed directly through recorded meteorological data, but, in view of changes in instrumentation over time, this is not always a straightforward task. Systematic records are a relatively recent occurrence, with sequences of data extending back c. 400 years at most, e.g. in Europe, but with much shorter sequences of data for most of the rest of the world. Such data are, however, very important in terms of identifying both natural and anthropogenic climatic change.

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