The Science of Reconstructing Past Climate

To find out what tree rings are telling us about droughts in the Colorado Basin, and to get some current perspective on the current eleven-year drought in the region, listen to my radio story for The California Report and view the slide show of my journey to the region. — Gretchen Weber

With cores from trees like this one, scientists have been able to reconstruct more than 1,000 years of climate history in this region. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Abbie Tingstad is a paleoclimatologist whose doctoral work at UCLA involved reconstructing climate in the Upper Colorado River Basin, using tree rings and lake sediments.

By Abbie Tingstad

Unlike biology, chemistry, or most mainstream sciences, it’s hard to envision what someone who studies paleoclimatology actually does. I run into a lot of blank stares at dinner parties. So I’ve started describing the field as “climate forensics.”

Paleoclimatology and forensics of the Law & Order or Bones variety share the basic goal of reconstructing something that has happened in the past. In the latter, of course, the sequence of events that led to a crime is put together. In the former, researchers identify past variations in climate.  These sciences also have quite a lot in common when it comes to the basic methodology: Continue reading