Monks' Diaries Shed Light on Climate Change

Monks from the 1600s now have a hand predicting future climate change. No, this isn't about Nostradamus. Rather, researchers from the University of Edinburgh are using monks’ diaries to reconstruct temperature records from the past to improve future predictions.

The researchers wanted to confirm climate models’ ability to predict temperature in Europe over long periods. That meant using comparing them to past data to see how well they could reconstruct the past.

However, there was a slight problem. Professor Gabi Hegerl, the lead researcher from the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences said, “around 1675 it gets quite sparse." To fill in the gaps she said, "we're working from monks' diaries and harvest records and all kinds of indirect evidence about whether they experienced warm or cold summers and winters.”

Researcher took clues from these indirect indicators and coupled them with more recent observations from weather stations. They then used this temperature data to “test” climate models. They found that simulations of Europe’s climate run from 1500 to the present closely matched up with the records from that time period.

Up until this new study, research had suggested that external influences on climate in Europe had been negligible. However, the new findings suggest that external factors prior to 1900 accounted for up to 75% of changes in the climate. The main factor before 1900 was volcanic activity, which caused significant summer cooling and winter warming.

Though vulcanism still plays a role in shaping climate, other factors have become more dominant since 1900. Since then, changes in Europe’s climate are driven by greenhouse gas emissions more than anything else.

The emissions today will also contribute to future climate change in a “significant and visible” way. In fact, that visibility might be on the rise as events like the Australian and Brazilian floods play out. Though manmade climate change isn’t the only factor that causes events like these, it is likely playing a role that will only increase.

Using monks’ diaries isn’t the first interesting use of the past to predict future climate change. But it is unique in its use of more anecdotal evidence being used to verify climate models. Its use lends more credibility to current citizen science monitoring projects.

More importantly, the results of the study further prove that scientists should be able to predict the future. "The climate models seem to be working quite well for the past, so we should expect that - at least when it comes to temperature - they will do well for the future. It indicates that the predictions might be on target," Professor Hegerl said.

Photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit