06 December 2009

the trouble with dendroclimatology — UPDATED

[click image, CROSS-SECTION OF TREE RINGS... (Alaska's very harsh summer of 1783... and not great one of 1780....)]

I have been vexed by all the blather about "climategate" going around, and trying my hardest to pay the least amount of acute attention as possible. The diffuse spray of headlines is quite bad enough. I did take the time out to actually read some of the emails everyone's screaming about, and the gripes about the deniers taking them out of context, but I don't even know whether the guys engaged in the exchange were dendroclimatologists or from some other discipline or guys trying to make all the data from various disciplines line up into a usable model for making predictions of future climate conditions. It matters only if you are interested in discrediting dendroclimatology, hitherto used only for confirming assumptions about the past, as a predictive tool for global mean temperatures, and you don't have to bother with the emails to do that.

I have been pissed off because I'm something like what you might call a lay expert in forestry, and, more loosely, how it bears on climate, macro-climate, conditions. The notion that they can make statements about TEMPERATURES, except in the very broadest strokes, from tree rings is messing with my head big time. A fool's errand. I will state that they might be able to make some really broad predictions based on what they can glean from confirming past events, because, after all, the temperature does have to be, mostly, within a certain range for a tree to stay alive at all, but that's as far as it goes. I don't rule out the possibility that they might even be able to narrow it to something more respectable if they manage to do better than hope the measurement of water isotopes in the wood would act anything acceptably like it does in ice core samples, aka paleothermometers, but, well that is fraught with complications... as you might expect from a life form when put up next to an ice cube. Maybe there are other chemical properties they might someday be able to identify as definitely temperature related, and dendroclimatology can become respectable for purposes of predicting climate change.

Right now, not so much.

Actually, right now, not at all.

Until very recently it has been about archeology, and really can work fine for that, for confirming historical assumptions, though not, as you can see, infallibly. But, if you've read the image-linked pitch, you might see that I have chosen the description that does the best job of making pure wishful thinking sound scientific. This is acceptable on one level because, with a lot of work, and a number of brilliant kids going for PhDs in this new twist on this field, it might turn into something that can actually measure what it wants to say it can measure right now. It seems to be saying it right now, despite the fact that it can't, not even with all this dazzling computing power to synthesize all the staggering numbers of variables one has to have noted upon data collection and cross-checked with records which might exist, vaguely apply and mostly not exist at all for each of those variables... just for ONE tree species, in one general area, let alone a bunch of them.

Hell, the tap root length for each tree alone would throw you wildly off from stand to stand.

Have I been clear? You can't separate out tree growth factors from ring size, or density, except in the broadest, too broad for temperature predictions, terms. You can see where the wet years and dry years were. You can see where fires were. You can't say anything about the temperature effects on the growth rings except, possibly, if you have the most minutely detailed records of prevailing conditions in a stand, down to the smallest clump of trees in each stand where you are measuring. The topography features and soil conditions vary hugely in just one stand, and these affect the hardiness of each tree and what is reflected in its rings in relation to its neighbors. Nothing about those rings that we know, or even yet conceivably might be able to come to know, comes from something distinctly measurable from the material itself, except as I've stated. It doesn't show how much sunlight the tree got in any given year of its life. It doesn't talk about the soil nutrients. It doesn't talk about the soil types, which can vary even more than the nutrient load in any given stand. It doesn't account for the variations in nitrogen fixing commensals. It doesn't talk about the individuals' varying ability to get enough water in dry years. It doesn't say anything about how much carbon dioxide the tree breathed in from year to year.

And here we need to stop and take in the folly of using a CO₂-breathing organism as gauge for climate predictions made urgent precisely by the very noticeable increase in anthropogenic CO₂ production globally. What's wrong with this picture?

Maybe you can extrapolate loosely the total CO₂ deposition, the sink, from each given annual growth ring?

So I hope I've given you a vague idea of how preposterously difficult it has to be to do all the statistical manipulations and analysis even to come up with information that almost certainly says nothing approximating what you started out hoping to say. They're not giving up... and goofy as they sound to me, I'm glad of that, because there MIGHT be a way, now that we have such astonishingly good computational power, even though we literally dirt certainly do not have the records to produce SCIENCE from this mêlée right now.

Their best shot at turning this archeological discipline into a predictive tool is NOT from taking [dangerous to trees] ring samples from ancient and pristine stands, and trying to extrapolate forward. Au contraire, mes amies. They should be measuring from trees grown in controlled conditions, but failing the time needed to sort that all out, they should be doing things like measuring from young douglas fir at the extremes of their range in places like industrial tree farms in the north and people's yards in the south, etc. They HAVE to start with trees where there exists the absolute best information about the conditions of their growth so as to be able to separate out even sort of plausibly for all the other factors beside temperature that have an effect on annual growth. Of all of them, temperature is likely to be the LEAST important, the needle in that haystack, and only remotely conceivably something that can eventually be shown through the application of chemistry to the discipline.

In fact, this whole polemic has grabbed the global population because this "science", they say has held beautifully for every past year up until 1960, veered off at that point and they don't know why. This isn't a secret. Nobody's trying to fool anybody about this 1960 boil on the face of all this wishful thinking... maybe just hoping it will go unnoticed till they can rectify the numbers... but the numbers don't hold after 1960 and they do not know why.

I know why. It didn't hold for the past. It got made to conform to the past by scientists looking in the mirror instead of at the trees. This is completely evident on the face of it if you know about trees, and, obviously, pretty opaque if you know about statistics and math but not the trees. Talk to some foresters, you idiots!

To conclude, climategate is only horrible if the scientists involved were trying to fudge the data to make dendroclimatology look predictive, but it seems they might not have been doing that. It seems they were merely trying to enhance the accuracy of interdisciplinary climate modeling by substituting the known accurate temperatures in from 1960 forward. This STILL leaves the gaping wound of the data purporting to tell the temperatures from years before thermometers were recording, but since scientists are so science-centric and pressed to perform on the climate crisis, this probably isn't anything they would have figured out before some forester reads this crap and goes and beats them over their egg heads.

We know there's suddenly intense pressure on this once-sleepy little discipline, but, er, however laudably you are trying to oblige, this isn't obliging. It's dangerous.


Simple as that.

Won't even necessarily mean the discipline loses funding because it still MAY get to the point where it can do this to within acceptable margins for error. But for right now, pfeh, get out of here! Quit screwing with us. This is an emergency. This is not a drill!



Thanks to Big Dan for the link, and please excuse the appalling use of Beavis and Butthead in the video, but THIS is the basis for a sudden flood of relief on the other side of this cyberspace from you just now. I feel much better, and maybe I'd've felt much better if I'd've forced myself to read through everything pertinent, but, well, as you know, I couldn't face it.

I'd lost too much vitality from all the trolls yonder....


Even later: Wow. I'm really, really getting some relief here. Sometime late afternoon or early evening yesterday, Saturday, it was put to me that this was an established scientific discipline and that they weren't trying to be dishonest. I knew the not trying to be dishonest part of it, but somehow the "established scientific discipline" part rattled my cage. Whuuuuuhut-t-t-t?

I know my stuff, here, and that piece of information threatened to send me off to the Alzheimer's experts because I couldn't find it in my mindscape. Figgered it had to be new from when I had to leave off with my forest activism, but, no, I was told, it was not new. I was right in the middle of one of my long nerve movies pertaining to matters completely else while these bits were sliding under my nose and it was really throwing big blots up into the middle of my screen.

Shortly it managed to snap off my movie and consume me with draft pontifications about how ever this could be, when it suddenly came to me to start googling this stuff. Holy shit. Well, yes, it ended up that I had known about guys running around after tree core samples, and assumed it was to gather historical data for inventory projections and applications of weather to local history... that sort of thing... but somewhere in there they had made, or tried to make, this archeological and commercial practice into something a lot more than that, tried to make it say stuff that freaked me more after learning more and thinking more than the mere notion of it had to begin with... and that was bad enough.

Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions from the tasteless YouTube scold that has set me free, but it really sounds now to me as though the guys in the climategate email exchange were feeling about this sort of like I am feeling about this, that the tone and the choices of words were driven by the exasperation of people working for truth to be known and to prevail in the shaping of our future course. And, if the whole discipline were not already being kicked out of our modeling, it will be now. This is really, really a relief. I had begun to feel something like despair that everyone, on both sides, had devolved to the work of substituting the survival of their inclinations for the survival of our planet.

We really are so close to completely losing it.

Sometimes I think I could just drop from bewilderment about the way sentient beings deal with vital things.


  1. I think the idea that we have an emergency is premised on the dendroclimatology being used to erase the medieval warming so as to validate the theory of the present warming being driven by carbon and not whatever it was that drove the medieval warming. Another problem is that it seems that the tree rings that were used for this purpose had been cherry picked, out of dozens of samples only a few were used and the rest destroyed. After reading your post one can see why they may have needed to do so to achieve the desired outcome. A lot of variables here for such a claim of certitude, not at all cut and dried as with dating trees within one area for archeology for example.

  2. Well, I don't think that's true, or not strictly the case, either way. The AGW claims are based on concrete observables that are most plausibly attributed to human origins. There may have been an effort to smudge out irksome data by this means or some other, or there may be plenty of other science that makes that excuse to do nothing as stupid as it seems on its face.

    Whatever else is true, anthropogenic trash is harming living things to a completely intolerable extent and very well may be threatening it to another mass extinction event, so whatever science can be brought to bear certainly should be, and ALL of it aimed at mitigating the anthropogenic footprint... NO MATTER WHAT. But, we cannot be doing any of it off crappy science, by the seat of our pants, not armed with as close an understanding of the real as we can accomplish, and it seems to me dendroclimatology cannot help but be leading away from that if they're trying to make it work for prediction.

    It's an obvious candidate for scientists scrambling around to speed up the production of usable models, but it's as obviously not at the point where it can DO that. It's like the string theorists dazzling themselves with their own math and not able to admit it's just a big absorbing mind game at this pass and get a life. There might be something reliably measurable in tree chemistry that can instantly turn this into something as workable as ice core samples.

    If you have a theory about Medieval warming being covered up, you should look at what the ice core sampling science is saying about it, THAT can and does nail the historic temperatures thing really, really well.

  3. I don't know or care where you stand on the issue, but I have to point out that the deniers are bucking the science for two reasons: [1] so they can keep getting rich off killing the planet; and [2] so new plutocrats can't come in and get rich off saving the planet. In both these cases, bucking the science is suicidal, genocidal, and they WAAAAAAAY wrong kind of "skepticism".

  4. We have to have the truth.

    We have to do the right stuff with the truth.

    The very worst case scenario for working our butts off, in light of what the consensus thinks is upon us, is that we end up with a much cleaner habitat, no matter what else is also true. Even if it was caused by something else and our mitigating couldn't mitigate enough.

    If we do nothing, we have rolled the dice with the existence of thousands and thousands of species... and probably our own.

    No acceptable.

  5. Does anyone see the pattern besides me? Rightwing media, sponsored behind the scenes by fascist corporations (which we should ignore, according to you), discredit something then in Phase II go about legislating the defunding of it. ACORN, Global Warming, etc...

    The SAME fucking guys doing it all the time! How stupid can everyone be? They're doing it right in front of our faces!

    Rush Limbaugh, Hannity, Breitbart...same guys, same setup.

    It's called a "sting" operation. No focus on the perpetrators of the sting, even though what they're doing is illegal. And it's because they control the media, and call it liberal.

  6. And the bigger picture, is they want to defund anything that's for the good of the public and mankind. And make everything public private (or corporate, use your own phrase). That's the biggest picture, to discredit and defund anything that's good for the majority of middle class and poor people. 99% of the people in the whole world. And they do it through their operatives and their media. Media is more powerful than an army.

  7. I have been pissed off because I'm something like what you might call a lay expert

    Yeah, you lay around all day!

  8. Yes, Danny, my darling, it's called F-A-S-C-I-S-M, fascism. That's exactly what you are describing. It's why I keep wailing that you should stop thumping on their mouthpieces, unless you intend to physically thump on them, and get about helping to figure out the great way to STOP the owners of our society. I can't think of anything but revolution, the uprising of masses, whether violently or just civil disobediently. There may be an avenue of doing it through simply bypassing them on this green technology thing....


    We can't not fix the planet because they're fascists.

  9. Maybe the scientists were saying that they were throwing out data that disputed Global Warming, because the certain method used to get that data was proven to be a bad method. It's just that it happened to dispute Global Warming. Maybe because of these results, they went back and checked the method, and decided the method was faulty giving those numbers.

    IE: they get rid of the data because it disproved Global Warming...but because the data disproved Global Warming, they went back and checked the method and said: "Ah! That's why it goes against our other tests. The test was faulty. That's why it disputes our other tests." Which would be perfectly ethical to do.

    So, maybe the Global Warming deniers are purposely misconstruing the emails.

    Also, why is there no focus at all by the law and the media on the hackers and the people breaking into the scientists' offices? And why aren't they caught yet? And why aren't they saying things like: "We're in hot pursuit of these guys, we have leads", etc...? Nothing, absolutely nothing, like the law and the media are covering up the perpetrators.

  10. You have to point out their LIES, because those lies do harm when unchallenged, as we see with the Global Warming. Ignore these creeps at your own risk, and then we'll all be dead from Global Warming.

  11. Still, the answer is fascism. The big boys don't get chased down for breaking the law. They get put further ahead for it.

    Call the police! Scream you want those hackers nailed.

    It is, however, just as likely that the scientists themselves were their own hackers for big money.

    Inhofe was exactly correct. This is extremely too convenient.

  12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjeIpjhAqsM&feature=player_embedded

  13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P70SlEqX7oY&feature=player_embedded

  14. 99: that last video addresses your tree rings, btw...watch that last video.

  15. You should put "cross section of tree rings" in big, black letters above that picture. I didn't know it was tree rings until just now! Trees aren't square, know what I mean? Yeah, I'm an idiot sometimes, but there's lots of idiots out there. Label it: Tree Rings

  16. "AGW claims are based on concrete observables"

    Here is just another example of how the 1/2 degree centigrade "warming" of global mean land surface temperature over the last century has been calculated. New technology has been key in debunking this myth:

    How not to measure temperature, part 92


    "anthropogenic trash is harming living things to a completely intolerable extent"

    Well, the AGW agenda is to build a hundred new nuclear power plants in the US and it is all based on lies and fearmongering too. Counting global construction new nuclear plants will exceed 1000. It all depends on cap and trade to make it competitve with carbon fuels. Great move for the environment. Which side are you on?

  17. Thanks for the scrutability tip, Danny!

  18. Atheo

    The problem has been measured using chemistry on ice cores, on sediments, on the shells of little critters, and a bunch of biological and geological things. They've got images galore for visual comparisons, time lapse photography, all kinds of measuring devices... and all of this stuff is in agreement. They just can't make tree rings attest is all, and I'm hugely relieved to find out they are kicking it out because they can't, when they were hoping they could.

    A lot of AGW people are "planning" a whole bunch of things. It does not mean we have to let them do what they're planning if what they're planning is as bad or worse than what we've got. We don't have to let the plutocrats keep fucking us up.

    A whole group of people seem to think that allowing this science fact to be true means they can't survive and mistakenly believe that if they don't allow it credibility that it will somehow stave off disaster. There's an obvious flaw in this. It's NOT a polemic, not an argument deniers can win or lose by how many people they can get on their side.

    Before I was felled by the need for emergency spine surgery a few years ago I spent my time on redwood timberlands, doing everything I could to enhance their prospects to keep occupying what territory is left to them, planting thousands by hand every winter, fighting local and state government, fighting AND WINNING against some Wall Street titans who had figured out how to out-Hurwitz Hurwitz in terms of milking profits from near moonscaped cutover lands that instead need many decades to turn back into forest.

    I've been paying close attention for FORTY years. Earth is in big trouble and WE have to do whatever we can, fight whoever we have to, to turn that around, EVEN if we fail, EVEN if we die. This is not a drill. This is not an exercise in political wedgification. This is reality.

    This is reality and we are adults. We are in charge of fixing this.

    That means beating the planet-killers and slave-drivers and PERFORMING.

  19. Cross section of tree rings, for the "tree ring impaired"!

  20. :-P

    That's just precisely the kind of stuff people need to remind me about because it's all so usual to me, I can't tell what really salient bit I'm failing to explain clearly enough. It's why I admire people who can explain really complex stuff to average people well. THAT IS REALLY, REALLY HARD.

  21. "The problem has been measured using chemistry on ice cores, on sediments, on the shells of little critters, and a bunch of biological and geological things."

    Well so far they have been proved liars on the tree ring and glacier front. Furthermore any claim of a link between CO2 and warming id disproved by the fact that temps have declined for over a decade while CO2 has increased. That's just the hard easy to read facts not shell analysis. So if they had tried to show a connection between carbon and warming based on shells, well, I guess they were lying about that also.

    Your feeling about the inevitability of warming is without scientific basis.

    AGW has nothing to do with forest preservation or any other environmental cause either. CO2 is the best thing going for trees.

    AGW is just a lie. This short video should put it into perspective:


  22. Were you born yesterday?

    Are you ten?

    WTF? WTF? WTF?

    Do you think I don't know how long scientists have been trying to warn about this? Do you think you can just cop a 'tude and dump it wherever and that will make the truth not be true? That's dumber than trying wring temperatures from tree rings. Have we got an IQ gap going here, and an age gap, and the ocean between good faith and bad faith action? OMG!

    Atheo! ARE YOU TEN?

    The tree ring guys weren't LYING. They were wrong. They came out and SAID they were wrong. They were under intense pressure for ways to come up with data they THOUGHT tree rings could be made to provide. They failed. They said so. That's not "lying".

    As for the glacier thing, I guess you must be blind, on top of being only ten. That's all I can think of that explains it.

    Ice core samples and all manner of other physical measurements have already shown we're in deep trouble, and WHEN the trouble started. All on rock solid scientific grounds, not just working their butts off to get the tree ring science up to the task. You can't just spew and change that. It escapes me why you'd even want to try.

    So much of it is direct measurement. Ocean acidity... oh... fuck you... do your homework! Get an education, twerp.

    No Really! If you're not just a lying creep trying to make a living off mindfucking fairy dust lefties, hit the books. You have a LOT of education to cram in that space between your ears and not much time left to get it done.


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