Tree Rings Reveal 2023 Was the Hottest Summer in 2,000 Years

Tree Rings Temperature Concept

Researchers have determined that the summer of 2023 was the hottest in the Northern Hemisphere in two thousand years, based on tree-ring data. This exceptional heat surpasses natural climate variability observed over centuries, highlighting the impact of human-induced global warming. (Artist’s concept.) Credit:

2023’s summer was the hottest in the Northern Hemisphere in 2000 years, surpassing natural climate variability, as shown by tree-ring data. This breach of the 2015 Paris Agreement’s warming limit highlights the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists have discovered that 2023 was the hottest summer in the Northern Hemisphere in the past two thousand years. In fact, it was over seven degrees warmer than the coldest summer during the same period.

Although 2023 has been reported as the hottest year on record, the instrumental evidence only reaches back as far as 1850 at best, and most records are limited to certain regions.

Now, by using past climate information from annually resolved tree rings over two millennia, scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have shown how exceptional the summer of 2023 was.

Historical Climate Variability

Even allowing for natural climate variations over hundreds of years, 2023 was still the hottest summer since the height of the Roman Empire, exceeding the extremes of natural climate variability by half a degree Celsius.

“When you look at the long sweep of history, you can see just how dramatic recent global warming is,” said co-author Professor Ulf Büntgen, from Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “2023 was an exceptionally hot year, and this trend will continue unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.”

Ulf Büntgen

Professor Ulf Büntgen from the University of Cambridge, co-author of a study that used tree-ring data to find that 2023 was the hottest summer in the Northern Hemisphere in the past two thousand years, almost four degrees warmer than the coldest summer during the same period. Credit: Ulf Büntgen

Breaching Climate Agreements

The results, reported in the journal Nature, also demonstrate that in the Northern Hemisphere, the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming to 2.7 °F (1.5 °C) above pre-industrial levels has already been breached.

Early instrumental temperature records, from 1850-1900, are sparse and inconsistent. The researchers compared early instrumental data with a large-scale tree ring dataset and found the 19th-century temperature baseline used to contextualize global warming is several tenths of a degree Celsius colder than previously thought. By re-calibrating this baseline, the researchers calculated that summer 2023 conditions in the Northern Hemisphere were 3.73 °F (2.07 °C) warmer than mean summer temperatures between 1850 and 1900.

“Many of the conversations we have around global warming are tied to a baseline temperature from the mid-19th century, but why is this the baseline? What is normal, in the context of a constantly changing climate, when we’ve only got 150 years of meteorological measurements?” said Büntgen. “Only when we look at climate reconstructions can we better account for natural variability and put recent anthropogenic climate change into context.”

Tree Rings as Climate Records

Tree rings can provide that context, since they contain annually-resolved and absolutely-dated information about past summer temperatures. Using tree-ring chronologies allows researchers to look much further back in time without the uncertainty associated with some early instrumental measurements.

The available tree-ring data reveals that most of the cooler periods over the past 2000 years, such as the Little Antique Ice Age in the 6th century and the Little Ice Age in the early 19th century, followed large sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions. These eruptions spew huge amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere, triggering rapid surface cooling. The coldest summer of the past two thousand years, in 536 CE, followed one such eruption, and was 7.07 °F (3.93 °C) colder than the summer of 2023.

Most of the warmer periods covered by the tree ring data can be attributed to the El Niño climate pattern, or El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niño affects weather worldwide due to weakened trade winds in the Pacific Ocean and often results in warmer summers in the Northern Hemisphere. While El Niño events were first noted by fishermen in the 17th century, they can be observed in the tree ring data much further back in time.

El Niño and Recent Climate Trends

However, over the past 60 years, global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions has caused El Niño events to become stronger, resulting in hotter summers. The current El Niño event is expected to continue into early summer 2024, making it likely that this summer will break temperature records once again.

“It’s true that the climate is always changing, but the warming in 2023, caused by greenhouse gases, is additionally amplified by El Niño conditions, so we end up with longer and more severe heat waves and extended periods of drought,” said Professor Jan Esper, the lead author of the study from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany. “When you look at the big picture, it shows just how urgent it is that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately.”

Northern vs. Southern Hemisphere Data

The researchers note that while their results are robust for the Northern Hemisphere, it is difficult to obtain global averages for the same period since data is sparse for the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere also responds differently to climate change, since it is far more ocean-covered than the Northern Hemisphere.

Reference: “2023 summer warmth unparalleled over the past 2,000 years” by Jan Esper, Max Torbenson and Ulf Büntgen, 14 May 2024, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07512-y

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council.

1 Comment on "Tree Rings Reveal 2023 Was the Hottest Summer in 2,000 Years"

  1. Clyde Spencer | May 14, 2024 at 8:52 pm | Reply

    “…the Little Ice Age in the early 19th century, followed large sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions.”

    These volcanic cooling events typically only last a couple of years, even for the largest eruptions like Krakatoa and Tambora, both of which came at the end of the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age lasted more than 500 years, starting about 1300 CE!

    It should be pointed out that proxies (such as tree rings) never have a perfect correlation with temperature. In some tree species and times, water may have a better correlation with temperature. Typically, plant growth is limited by a scarcity of a critical requirement, even when all other requirements are abundant. Therefore, the claims should be taken with some reservation.

    If the correlation is less than perfect, how can they be so certain that their results are “robust?” How can they be certain that greenhouse gases have caused El Niños to become stronger? We can’t predict El Niños far into the future because we aren’t really sure what causes them. Tree rings don’t provide that information. Correlation alone doesn’t establish causation. There are a lot of assumptions that the authors would be hard pressed to justify if challenged.

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