New paleoclimatology proxy – old science magazines

Old issues of Science, Nature, might be useful after all.

From The Weizmann Institute of Science

Some of the history preserved in old tomes and newspapers may be hiding in between the lines of print. A Weizmann Institute scientist has found that the paper in such collections contains a record of atmospheric conditions at the time the trees that went into making it were growing. By analyzing the carbon isotopes in bits of paper clipped from old magazines, Prof. Dan Yakir of the Environmental Sciences and Energy Research Department in the Faculty of Chemistry has traced the rising effects of atmospheric pollution from burning fossil fuel going back to beginnings of the industrial revolution.

Scientists generally reconstruct the record of past climate change from such sources as ice cores or tree rings. But a reliable tree ring history, says Yakir, requires an analysis of quite a few trees. “Rather than going to forests all over the world to sample trees,” says Yakir, “we went to the local library.” In the Weizmann library’s archives, Yakir found issues of the scientific journals Science, Nature and the Journal of the Royal Chemical Society going back over 100 years to the late 19th century. Removing small samples from the margins of successive volumes, he took them back to the lab for analysis.

The analysis was based on a finding that the proportion of a carbon isotope – carbon 13 (13C) – to its lighter counterpart – carbon 12 (12C) – could provide information on the CO2 added to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel. This is based on a cycle that begins with plants taking up CO2 in photosynthesis. All plants prefer to use CO2 made with the more common version of carbon, 12C, than the slightly heavier 13C. Plant biomass from millions of years ago was transformed into reservoirs of oil, gas and coal, and so these are naturally low in 13C, as well. When we started to burn those reservoirs following the industrial revolution, we began returning the 13C-poor CO2 to the atmosphere. Now the atmospheric 13C content has become increasingly diluted, and this is reflected in the carbon ratios in the trees milled for pulp and paper. Yakir’s work shows that this continuing dilution is, indeed, clearly recorded in the archival paper and, plotted over time, it demonstrates the increasing intensity of our fossil fuel burning in the past 150 years.

This project has been ongoing for about 14 years, with figures from new issues added over time. In the process, says Yakir, he has had to learn something about the paper industry. Some early issues, for instance, had been printed on rag paper (made of cotton, flax, etc.) rather than wood pulp, while blips in the data around the time of WWII led Yakir to suspect that the paper was either recycled, or again supplemented with rag content to make up for wartime shortages.

Anomalies aside, 13C levels in the paper, especially for two of the journals, were a good match for existing atmospheric records, and even revealed some local phenomena, including differences between American and European records. In addition to alerting climate scientists to a very well organized, untapped, source of global change records, says Yakir, the technique could be used to authenticate antique paper samples.

Prof. Dan Yakir’s research is supported by the Cathy Wills and Robert Lewis Program in Environmental Science and the estate of Sanford Kaplan.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world’s top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,700 scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.

47 thoughts on “New paleoclimatology proxy – old science magazines

  1. Before destroying the journal paper for the study, they might want to read the journal papers first. Most studies on the Late Holocene climate that I know of prior to the AGW hysteria of the 1980s showed the present was rather cool compared with the MWP and Roman Warm Period. Rhodes Fairbridge’s paper in Science in 1976 comes to mind as a major work. Studies on the Pleistocene climate oscillations suggested the Eemian Interglacial was warmer than the present one.
    Perhaps this Weizmann study of the paper in the journals simply confirms the studies in the papers in journals.

  2. Somehow, this commits the sin of mixing up climate with CO2. I will grant CO2 is a secondary forcer in climate. I will also grant that we have burned a lot of fossil fuel. but mixing them together and making much of it seems to a bit much.

  3. A magazine printed in 1912 contains wood pulp, but the wood was grown before 1912. Was it a 20 year old tree? 30 years old? A recycled building from 1850 made from trees which sprouted in 1780? Some California fruit crates from the 1940s came from pine trees hundreds of years old. There seems to be an error bar here.
    Did the wood pulp originate in Texas, downwind of oil production facilities or from rural coastal Oregon where the carbon came from across the Pacific Ocean? Again, what is the error in the measurement?
    The magazine production methods from the 1930s used what chemical and mechanical processes that added carbon and oil impurities to the wood pulp? I’m sure meticulous notes were taken to insure someone 70 years later could duplicate their methods. /sarc
    Perhaps the authors have taken these things into account using the scientific method. Perhaps it’s more junk science. The Smell Test suggests the error in the measurements exceeds what is being measured.

  4. Not sure about that “100 years is a weather report…”
    Afaik, the Greenland ice cores imply quite rapid shifts from warm to cold and vice versa, with the transition taking 10 years or less, possibly much less.
    So climate can be subject to very sharp swings very quickly.
    We just don’t know why or by what mechanism. It would probably be useful to try to model these past excursions to at least see what the implications are. The most obvious one, at least for me, is that the IPCC forecast of gradual, albeit exponential, change is inconsistent with the geological record.

  5. This assumes that the only possible explanation for the decrease in the 13C to 12C ratio is fossil fuel burning. Most other natural release processes also have a negative delta-13C (and a delta-13C which is more negative than the present atmospheric delta-13C). The correct statement is “the change in the atmospheric 13C ratio is consistent with an increase in atmospheric CO2 being due to fossil fuel burning but it is not a unique explanation”.

  6. Have they forgotten that the whole C-14 sequence (which I am presuming is involved) is influenced very strongly by solar activity?

  7. I tend to agree with Jeff of Colarado on the basis that there seems to be too many unidentified variables in the manufacture of the paper. I realise forensic science is incredibly clever and very deductive, but the error bars must be huge.

  8. There’s another problem with this. What part of the tree did the paper come from. Was it the core heartwood or the cambium sofwood. These would have grown on the tree at different times with different C13 – C12 ratios in the atmosphere.
    Which brings up another interesting possibility. Why not just use one tree, say 400 yrs old and check the middle earliest growth with the outermost late growth. Wouldn’t that give a proxy for C13-C12 ratios? If that wouldn’t give valid results, then neither can this study.

  9. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/06/13/surprise-leaves-maintain-temperature-new-findings-may-put-dendroclimatology-as-metric-of-past-temperature-into-question/
    “For decades, scientists studying the impact of global warming have measured the oxygen isotope ratio in tree-rings to determine the air temperature and relative humidity of historical climates.
    Oxygen atoms within water molecules evaporate more or less quickly depending on the number of neutrons they carry, and the ratio between these differently weighted atoms in tree trunk rings has been used as a measure of year-to-year fluctuations in temperatures and rainfall.
    “The assumption in all of these studies was that tree leaf temperatures were equal to ambient temperatures,” lead researcher Brent Helliker told AFP. “It turns out that they are not.”
    Helliker and University of Pennsylvania colleague Suzanna Richter turned those assumptions upside down in examining 39 tree species, across 50 degrees of latitude ranging from sub-tropical Columbia to boreal Canada.
    They compared current observed records of humidity and temperature against the isotope ratios in the trees, and found that tree leaves were internally cooler than surrounding air temperatures in warm climes, and warmer in cool climes.
    Even more startling was that in all cases the average temperature – over the course of a growing season – was about 21degC.”
    Here is the referenced paper
    http://www.sas.upenn.edu/earth/pdf/nature07031.pdf

  10. This seems to mix two issues that I have a problem with. Perhaps it’s just my lack of understanding. But I’ve read a rebuttal disputing that isotope analysis can accurately attribute carbon to an anthropogenic source and I have a very hard time accepting anything as a temperature proxy (at least to any acceptable degree of accuracy).

  11. I’m not a scientist and perhaps read this piece improperly. It seems to me that this research is not about temperatures, but rather about percent of ambient CO2 in the atmosphere derived from fossil fuel sources. I suppose that it might serve to illuminate residency times in the atmosphere for CO2 from fossil sources (though I doubt it given the vagaries of what might be burned, when it might have been harvested, and what it might contain as outlined by others), but I don’t see any commentary/conclusions related to temperature proxy. What am I missing?

  12. All plants prefer to use CO2 made with the more common version of carbon, 12C, than the slightly heavier 13C. Plant biomass from millions of years ago was transformed into reservoirs of oil, gas and coal, and so these are naturally low in 13C, as well. When we started to burn those reservoirs following the industrial revolution, we began returning the 13C-poor CO2 to the atmosphere. Now the atmospheric 13C content has become increasingly diluted, and this is reflected in the carbon ratios in the trees milled for pulp and paper.
    Since plants prefer the 12C, does that mean the air was CO2 poor at the 270-335 ppm levels of the 1800’s and early 1900’s?
    Where are the facts?
    “What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!” Lazarus Long – as told by Robert Anson Heinlein

  13. Jeff (of Colorado):
    I agree with all you say in your post at February 8, 2011 at 8:22 am including your conclusion that says;
    “The Smell Test suggests the error in the measurements exceeds what is being measured.”
    Yes, and part of the “smell” is provided by this statement in the report:
    “Anomalies aside, 13C levels in the paper, especially for two of the journals, were a good match for existing atmospheric records, and even revealed some local phenomena, including differences between American and European records.”
    So, they claim to have detected a “good match for existing atmospheric records” of GLOBAL concentrations by analysis of a proxy that shows “local phenomena” and “differences between American and European records” for a gas that the IPCC says is “well mixed” in the atmosphere.
    Which is the data a proxy for:
    local indications (and what is “local”?) of atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    or
    global so-called ‘background’ concentrations of atmospheric CO2?
    Perhaps neither?
    Richard

  14. Douglas Foss says:
    February 8, 2011 at 9:40 am
    ‘I’m not a scientist and perhaps read this piece improperly. …., but I don’t see any commentary/conclusions related to temperature proxy. What am I missin?’
    I thought the same and, as a non-scientist too, my first reaction was to mutter to myself: we must give up all fire and all carbon fuels then, so that the world isn’t filled with evil 13-CO2 – note too the ‘bad luck’ number. Am I wrong here? (-probably). It reminded me of Pulman’s idea of Dust in ”His Dark Materials’, like original sin, all around you all the time. There’s a lot of hell-fire sermons in that spin.
    ~~~ Shudder~~~

  15. what is the oceans absorbtion and outgass rates for C12 vs C13 ? if they are not the same then that alone could make this sort of guess/experiment totally meaningless if it is not accounted for … does ethanol have a different C12 vs C13 mix and if so doesn’t the fact that we burn 10% ethanol also come into the mix ?

  16. Volcanoes release considerable CO2. See the Lake Nyos disaster for the CO2 evolution rate of just one volcanic vent. There are probably 3 million volcanic vents under the oceans alone.

  17. Did you ever go into a library and smell old books? Musty. That is because the paper is infested with mold, mildew, mites, and/or insects (called “museum pests”) that are feasting on the paper, and excreting their metabolites.
    Need I say more?

  18. I seem to remember from chemistry lessons ( not saying how long ago!) that chemical processes cannot distinguish between isotopes of the same element.
    Has that lesson been superceded? I would like to see something to actually prove it.
    If not then the idea that the isotope ratio can be a ( yet another) proxy for CO2 from fossil fuel use is somewhat suspect.

  19. especially for two of the journals, were a good match for existing atmospheric records, and even revealed some local phenomena,
    So, we picked out 2 journals which matched our preconceptions and voilà it worked. Eureka

  20. dave38 says:
    February 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    Yes, biological processes can discriminate. Look up “isotope discrimination biological” or something like that on Ask Sam or another engine and you can get the heads-up. Over long times, isotopes can also be discriminated as they percolate through materials. That is the principle with centrifugal separation of isotopes.

  21. Jeff (of Colorado) has an excellent point. Add where the trees were grown. Pines grown in GA grow 2 to 3 times faster than those grown in British Comlumbia. Paper made in Canada will be 20-60 years out of phase with paper made in GA. Since that represents nearly 50% of the covered period, I question the validity of these results.

  22. Chemical reactions do not distinguish between isotopes. Isotopic determination is done by big machines called “mass spectometers.” These measure the mass of ionic particles , and from this, the ratio of C12, and C13 can be determined. The C14 is produced contiually in the atmosphere, and has been increased by the atomic age. It exists in a smaller amount that C13, and the calculation takes its existence into account. Also part of the math will be deuterium and tritium ratios.

  23. I find what is written on that old paper to be even more revealing. Like this:
    “The Greenland (Arctic) and Vostok (Antarctic) ice cores are particularly informative, offering fine temporal resolution and continuity. This has revealed surprising oscillations of climate on a millennial scale within the main 100-kyr cycle. The Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) identifies some 24 interstadials through the last ice age with average temperature rising rapidly by ~7 C over just decades. Further ice and sediment cores from around the world are demonstrating the global scale of these major climatic events.”
    From: Hewitt, G. 2000. The genetic legacy of the Quarternary ice ages. NATURE, Vol. 405, 22 June 2000 (www.nature.com)
    Imagine. Rapid pre-SUV climate change!

  24. Lady Life Grows says:
    February 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm
    We were talking about biochemical processes (trees), which are chemical reactions accelerated by enzymes, that can discriminate elemental isotopes, especially for small elements like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, or silicon. To a very small amount, so that textbooks can say “for all intents and purposes…” chemical reactions are isotopically blind. This is especially true for fast reactions for which all isotopes have statistically similar probabilities to encounter the substrate. It is still not a zero difference, though. Physical processes can also distinguish isotopes, heavier ones moving slower. O18, for example, moves 11% slower than O16 through solids.
    Chemical reactions are almost isotope blind, except for a statistically, vanishingly small preference for lighter isotopes due to enhanced speed of collisions.

  25. So what about the carbon isotopes in the ink, used to print those peer reviewed journals; what climate history does that reveal ?

  26. paulhan says:
    February 8, 2011 at 9:11 am
    “Which brings up another interesting possibility. Why not just use one tree, say 400 yrs old and check the middle earliest growth with the outermost late growth. Wouldn’t that give a proxy for C13-C12 ratios? If that wouldn’t give valid results, then neither can this study.”
    What gets funded is just truly amazing. I guess they figured their approach saved them the work of finding and acquiring an old tree. Now maybe they will realize they need the tree for confirmation, since you explained the matter.

  27. and even revealed some local phenomena, including differences between American and European records.

    How did they determine which papermill the journal bought their paper from? It might be from Vancouver Island, Minnesota, Sweden, Finland or Siberia or a dozen other places whether the journal was printed in the US or in Europe.

  28. I interpret the data to show that prior to the release of sequestered C as CO2 the atmosphere was in a state of CO2 deficiency. Plants were compelled to utilise the non-preferred 13C as there was not enough 12C available.
    The use of fossil C has saved the Earth’s biosphere from starving to death. It’s a lot better than we thought.

  29. And here is a totally different thought.
    As a geologist I have spent many years studying the mining, processing and use of various industrial minerals.
    Three specific minerals come to mind immediately. The first is kaolinite (KalSi3O8). Kaolinite has been used as a functional filler in paper for ever. In the early years it was first used to fill spaces between the wood fiber. It served to make the paper less transparent and replaced the more expensive wood fiber. In more recent years various kaolin products have been developed, many which serve as a coater on the surface of the paper. This is necessary as paper has become much thinner, and thus needs the clay to accommodate colour printing, bleed through, and to allow the type of high quality colour now found in for example, magazines. How does this relate to CO2 you ask?
    Well, the kaolin always contains organic contamination. This is commonly removed (beneficiated) by bleaching with chlorine, a.k.a. Javex. Of course one never removes all of the organics. Thus, each deposit of clay has different source areas for the carbon, some very old, and some very new due to surface process. Soooo… every time the source of kaolin was varied, the carbon isotope ratios would vary. Early on the kaolin in European paper would have been (a lot of it) sourced from Cornwall, England. early on in the US clay would also have been imported fro Cornwall and other European sources. When the large kaolin deposits were found in Georgia (USA) this would have replaced (over time) much of the European imports. Also consider, that in the early days there was little paper recycling. Now paper may be de-inked, recycled from many different sources, with different clay sources and used to make new paper. To complicate things even further, kaolin from South America has come on stream replacing both European and US sources……….. a pretty muddy story!
    I’ll cut this short. Calcium carbonate used as filler and coater. CaCo3 plus old organic carbon, graphite, carbon from modern hydrothermal processes, surface contamination.
    CO2 in paper is a total dogs breakfast. They found different CO2 isotope ratio’s in European vs US paper. What a joke!!!! This si the real DANGER of science operating in a vacuum… to specialized.

  30. Richard says:
    February 8, 2011 at 2:57 pm
    Cool. A testable hypothesis. 13CO2 is available for study.

  31. Paper as proxy for trees as proxy for atmospheric CO2 as proxy for temperature.
    It works except for the last part. Yes, humans have increased CO2. So what?

  32. Whoops……… my mind was thinking kaolinite but my fingers typed the formula of feldspar …my bad. Al2Si3O5 + 2H2O if I remember correctly.

  33. This one really takes the cake. Its hard to believe that thinking humans would ever fund such “scientific” folly.
    Magazine paper no more grows on trees than macaroni or plastic. Its an industrially processed product. At this point who knows what processes and materials were used, when and where this paper is supposed to have been manufactured. To say that the differences in C12 and C13 in manufactured paper were due to atmospheric influences is a naive leap of faith and unsupportable, if not deceptive and ludicrous. This paper looks like a rip off of the funders and should be rejected by the thinking scientific community even including, “climate scientists”. Another question would be who reviewed this paper and passed on it with such obvious outstanding questions. Another failure of the pal review system of “climate science”!
    Its hard to accept tree ring data for multiple reasons related to sun, water and other stressors, but this review shows the current folly of “climate science”. We all could do better work in 7th grade science than this ridiculous paper.
    But, of course, its been published therefore the funder has reaped its reward, a fatuous paper that has been published in their name.
    Lets add this to the list of Space Junk that has to eventually be cleaned up.

  34. Philip Finck says:
    February 8, 2011 at 3:19 pm
    Very interesting. Is newspaper (what they sampled) clay coated as compared with glossy magazines which obviously use clay coated paper stock?

  35. I hope that’s all wood pulp paper. Nicholson Baker’s excellent book “Double Fold” mentions a 19th century practice of making rag papers from mummy wrappings, which would mess up any dated isotope measurements…

  36. Since they used scientific journals it would not be wood pulp (mechanically processed) paper. The more recent volumes are definitely coated journal paper. At least that is what Science and Nature are using. Reprocessed fibre is normally not used for this paper quality.
    To complicate things further printing paper uses a mixture of wood fibre. For paper produced in Sweden and Finland pine ands spruce fibre is complemented by a sizable proportion of birch to improve printing quality. The pine and spruce is usually local while most of the birch is imported from the Baltic countries or Russia.
    Paper might seem a very simple product. It isn’t.

  37. I assume they could get similar data over a longer span of time by analyzing samples of the wood used in the original construction of old public libraries, churches, etc. …

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