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Edited by Sarah Tennant1, Karen Pearce1, Chris Turney2 and Katherine Harle3

This document is based on Building a future on knowledge from the past: what palaeo-science can reveal
about climate change and its potential impacts in Australia, a scientific report prepared for the Department of
Climate Change. The full report, including a comprehensive reference list of the scientific papers cited, can
be obtained at

The scientific report was prepared by CSIRO in association with scientific collaborators:
Katherine Harle3, David Etheridge3, Mike Barbetti4, Roger Jones3, Brendan Brooke5, Penny Whetton3, Tas van
Ommen6, Ian Goodwin7 and Simon Haberle8

With special thanks for their assistance to:

Tim Barrows8, John Chappell8, Patrick De Deckker8, David Fink9, Mike Gagan8, Henk Heijnis9 Ann Henderson­
Sellers9, Paul Hesse10, Geoff Hope8, Peter Kershaw11, Neville Nicholls12 and Kevin Hennessy3

Australian Climate Change Science Programme
GeoQuEST Research Centre, University of Wollongong
University of Queensland
Geoscience Australia
Australian Antarctic Division & ACE CRC
University of Newcastle
Australian National University
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
Macquarie University
Monash University
Bureau of Meteorology

Published by the Department of Climate Change

© Commonwealth of Australia, 2008
ISBN - 13: 978-1-921297-04-5
ISBN - 10: 1-921297-04-2
This work is copyright. It may be reproduced in whole or in part for study or training purposes subject to
the inclusion of an acknowledgment of the source, but not for commercial usage or sale. Reproduction
for purposes other than those listed above requires the written permission of the Department of Climate
Change. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to:
Director, Public Affairs
Department of Climate Change
GPO Box 854

Cover photo: Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Designed by ROAR (DEH 3863)



Executive Summary ___________________________________________________________________________ 2

An introduction to palaeo-records______________________________________________________________ 3
What are palaeo-records? _________________________________________________________________ 3
Why do we need palaeo-records? __________________________________________________________ 3
Scales of evidence ________________________________________________________________________ 4
Dating palaeo-records ____________________________________________________________________ 5
Why are Australia’s palaeo-records so important? _____________________________________________ 7

Palaeo-records in Australia_____________________________________________________________________ 8
Terrestrial records ________________________________________________________________________ 8
Tree rings ____________________________________________________________________________ 8
Cave deposits _________________________________________________________________________ 9
Wetland sediments ____________________________________________________________________ 9
River, lake and dune geomorphology ___________________________________________________10
Coastal sediments ____________________________________________________________________11
Glacial deposits ______________________________________________________________________12
Marine records__________________________________________________________________________12
Ocean sediments _____________________________________________________________________13
Antarctic records ________________________________________________________________________14

What can palaeo-records tell us about our past climate? ________________________________________16

Understanding natural climate variation ____________________________________________________16
Evidence of past changes in temperature, precipitation and other climatic factors________________16
The effects of past climate variation on high-impact events ___________________________________17

What can palaeo-records tell us about our future climate?_______________________________________18

Improving climate models ________________________________________________________________18
Predicting future climate drivers___________________________________________________________18
Greenhouse gases ____________________________________________________________________18
Aerosols, solar and land use____________________________________________________________19
Impact of climate change on our environment ______________________________________________19
Understanding carbon sinks ______________________________________________________________19

The future of palaeo-research in Australia ______________________________________________________21

Notes ______________________________________________________________________________________22

Department of Climate Change 1



Climate leaves an imprint on the planet – in the chemical and physical structure of its oceans, life and land. In
much the same way that archaeologists reveal past cultures by looking at artefacts, or detectives reconstruct a
crime by piecing together evidence found at the scene, scientists gather evidence stored in the environment to
reconstruct the history of Earth’s climate over hundreds of thousands – and in some cases millions – of years.
When combined with observations of Earth’s modern climate, evidence from the past can help us understand
our present climate and predict what future climates might be like.
In Australia, high quality instrumental climate records only extend back to the late 19th century, providing just
a brief snapshot of our climate’s natural state and its variability. To understand the nature of our present climate
and, in turn, predict our future climate we need data that go back far beyond the instrumental record. This is
where palaeo-science comes in.
Palaeo-science provides the means to extend climate records back tens to thousands of years. Palaeo (meaning
‘ancient’) records include direct and indirect (proxy) evidence of past atmospheric, terrestrial and marine
conditions. The records are derived directly from the environment itself, rather than from historical documents
and instrumental measurements. This evidence is wide ranging, including landscape features (such as ancient
lake shorelines), and biological, chemical and isotopic material stored in sediments, ice sheets, tree rings, cave
deposits and corals. Palaeo-records provide a powerful tool for reconstructing not only past climates, but also
the drivers of climate change (including atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases), and the impacts
that climate change has had on the environment.
We now have the geographic coverage and temporal resolution
from palaeo-records to identify and understand cycles of climate
Palaeo-records provide us variation and change across the Australasian region that are not
with the means to understand evident in the instrumental records. This presents an opportunity to
test and improve not only our understanding of climate change and
the degree to which current variability in Australia, but also the processes driving climate change.
climate change is due to This knowledge in turn can be used to test the ability of models to
natural cycles and human simulate climate, improving that ability of scientists to predict future
climatic conditions. Palaeo-records provide the length of records
influences. necessary for testing climate models that instrumental records are
simply too short to provide.
Importantly, palaeo-records provide us with the means to understand the degree to which current climate
change is due to natural cycles and to human influences. Critical to this has been the measurement of
greenhouse gases trapped in air bubbles in ice sheets (especially from Antarctica and Greenland). This direct
evidence of atmospheric composition (a key driver in climate change) has allowed scientists to determine the
variation in atmospheric greenhouse gases over the last 700,000 years, demonstrating clearly that the current
concentrations are not only well above ‘natural’ levels but that they are also accumulating at faster rates.
Similarly, palaeo-records have been used to identify the roles that aerosol concentrations, solar irradiance and
land cover change have had in climate forcing, both pre and post-industrial times (~1750 AD).
The information provided by palaeo-research is invaluable in helping explain how and why our climate
has changed in the past and, ultimately, in helping us to assess and plan for climate change in the future.
Surrounded by oceans, Australia’s location in the Southern Hemisphere puts us in a unique position to
contribute to the global understanding of climate change. There has recently been a push to bring together
the growing number of palaeo-records to carry out cross-regional, national scale analyses to fill important
geographical and chronological gaps in the climate record. This would allow the production of an Australian
data set to rival that of the Northern Hemisphere, providing valuable information of past climate variation in
the Australian region.
This overview is an introduction to the value of palaeo-science in the understanding of climate change in
Australia. It is based on a technical report prepared for the Department of Climate Change by CSIRO in
association with collaborators from other scientific institutions. The technical report should be referred to for
a comprehensive analysis of the potential of palaeo-science to contribute to understanding climate change in

2 Department of Climate Change



What are palaeo-records?

The term ‘palaeo’ comes from the Greek word palaios, meaning ancient. Palaeo-records are natural archives
of past atmospheric, terrestrial and marine environments.
Palaeo-records can be derived from a wide range of natural sources, including:
• tree rings
• cave deposits (e.g. stalagmites and stalactites)
• corals
• Antarctic ice cores
• lake and marine sediments
• landscape features, such as ancient lake shores, river courses and desert sand dunes
• coastal deposits (e.g. sand dunes and beach ridges)
• glacial deposits.
The records provide either indirect (proxy) evidence of natural environments, such as fossils or chemicals
buried in sediments at the bottom of the oceans, or direct evidence, such as the gases trapped in air bubbles
in ice sheets.
Some palaeo-records, such as those derived from tree rings, cave deposits, corals, Antarctic ice cores and
sediments, provide continuous records of past environments that allow investigation of changes from an
annual to millennial scale. Other records, such as sand dunes and coastal and glacial deposits, are not
continuous but provide records of specific events and periods.

Why do we need palaeo-records?

In Australia, high quality instrumental climate records only extend back to the late 19th century. They can
only provide a brief snapshot (around 100 years) of our climate’s natural state and its variability. Natural
cycles of climate variability and change, however, span periods much longer than this – ranging from
sub-decadal (e.g. El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycles) to hundreds and thousands of years. There is also
evidence to suggest that these cycles interact, with short-term cycles being influenced by longer term
variability and change. To properly understand our complex climate system it is necessary to acquire data
that go back far beyond the instrumental record. Palaeo-science provides the means to do this.
Palaeo-records provide direct and proxy evidence of natural climate change and variability spanning
thousands of years (Table 1). Importantly, they also provide information about the processes driving our
climate systems and about the impacts that climate change and variability have on the natural environment.
This means that palaeo-records can provide us with the information to reconstruct how our climate systems
have behaved through time in response to key drivers (such as changes in the composition of atmospheric
greenhouse gases) and how the natural environment has responded to these changes.
In using palaeo-records it is important to understand that each type of palaeo-record has its strengths and
limitations. For example, palaeo-records derived from marine sediments can provide evidence of climate
change spanning hundreds of thousands of years, however, they frequently lack the detail to identify annual
or even decadal climate patterns. In contrast, past climate records obtained from tree rings provide evidence
on annual timescales, but are generally limited to a few thousand years.

To properly understand our complex

climate system it is necessary to
acquire data that go back far beyond
the instrumental record.

Department of Climate Change 3


Comparing historic records of climate with palaeo-records

provides an important means for identifying the degree to
which recent climate change has been caused by natural
climate drivers or by human activities. For example, the
climate record over the past thousand years clearly shows
that global temperatures have increased significantly in
the 20th century, and that this warming is unprecedented
in the last 1,200 years. Along with other palaeo-records,
measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations collected
from ice cores are helping to unravel how much of this
warming can be explained by natural causes and how much
is due to human influences.
As well as helping us to understand the behaviour of our
climate in the past and present, the evidence derived from
palaeo-records can help us predict future climate change.
Understanding the drivers affecting our climate systems is
an important part of this. Palaeo-data can also be used to
validate climate models - our key tool for predicting future
climate change. By comparing simulations of past climate
change with observations from palaeo-records we are able
to increase our confidence in the ability of climate models to
simulate future climate change.

Scales of evidence
The palaeo-climate records that are currently available in the
Australian region cover a range of scales in time and space
In Australia, high quality instrumental climate (see Table 1).
records only extend back to the late 19th century.
The range of spatial scales is limited by the location of
environments suitable for palaeo-records to form, such as
the presence of suitable cave deposits and moister climates for wetlands and bogs.
The timescales covered by palaeo-records range from the seasonal through to the millennial. Corals, tree
rings and some coastal Antarctic ice cores have provided records showing seasonal changes. They have also
produced records spanning decades and even millennia, as have some terrestrial sediment archives.
Other palaeo-records, both on land and in the ocean,can only provide longer-term records. This is in part
due to inadequacies in the sampling technique or the dating resolution, but in many cases is due to the
nature of the record itself.

4 Department of Climate Change


REcoRd ScAlE PRovidES EvidENcE of

Decadal/ subdecadal

Greenhouse gases

Ocean circulation
Sediment budget
vegetation & fire
Wind strength


Sea surface
Ice volume

Sea level
Antarctic ice cores 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
corals 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
Tree rings 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
cave deposits 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
Marine sediments 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
Wetland sediments 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
coastal deposits 3 3 3 3 3
River, lake & dune
3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
Glacial deposits 3 3 3 3

Table 1: Summary of the types of evidence palaeo-records can provide about past climates and climate change impacts.

With recent advances in sample collection, dating and analysis, it is now possible to produce high resolution,
high quality records capable of extending our climate records considerably beyond the instrumental records.
Although some geographical gaps exist for key periods, the range of palaeo-records available means that
we are now in a position to compare evidence for past climate change and variability both across the
Australasian region and globally. This will significantly improve our understanding of the Earth’s climate

Dating palaeo-records
Providing an age framework for palaeo-records using dating techniques is essential to our ability to use
palaeo-records to understand the processes, drivers and cycles of past climate change and variability.
Standard dating techniques used in Australia are based on:
• the decay of radioactive elements
• the accumulation over time of trapped electrons
• time-dependent chemical reactions
• the counting of annual layers, such as in trees and corals.
large widespread events, such as volcanic eruptions or radioactive testing, can also be used as time markers

to help date records.

The most common dating methods used in Australia are shown in Table 2.

Department of Climate Change 5


Method Age range Materials to which it is applied

1. Radioactive decay
Radiocarbon (14C) 0-40 ka (possibly wood, resin, charcoal, peat, shell,
60 ka under ideal coral, bone, organic sediments
long-lived cosmogenic radioisotopes: 10 ka to 10 Ma exposure age dating of rocks
beryllium-10 (10Be), aluminium-26 (26Al) and
chlorine-36 (36Cl)
Uranium-thorium disequilibrium (238U/230Th) 0-250 ka Coral, speleothems, eggshell, closed-
system organic sediments (such as
peats), bone
2. Trapped electrons
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSl) 0 to 100-500 ka quartz or feldspar sediments
Thermo-luminescence (Tl) 0 to 100-500 ka quartz or feldspar sediments, loess,
pottery, hearths, tephras
Electron spin resonance (ESR) 0-1 Ma Coral, teeth, calcite, gypsum
3. Slow chemical reactions 0 to 100-500 ka Eggshell, shells, forams, wood
Amino-acid racemisation
4. layer counting Annual Tree rings, coral growth rings, ice
(sometimes cores, laminated sediments
seasonal) (the latter are rare in Australia)
ka = thousand years ago, Ma = million years ago

Table 2: Quaternary dating methods used in Australia1.

Radiocarbon dating is one of the techniques used to date palaeo-records. This

photo shows carbon dating equipment in the Adelaide laboratories of CSIRO
Land and Water. © CSIRO Photo: Willem van Aken

6 Department of Climate Change


Why are Australia’s palaeo-records so important?

Australia spans a range of climatic zones and so is in a unique position to provide palaeo-records of past
climate change across a range of environments, including:
• Antarctic
• temperate
• arid/semi-arid
• subtropical
• tropical

• oceanic

• continental.
These records can then be compared to provide a holistic picture of past climate change.
Due to our location surrounded by several major oceanic and atmospheric controls, Australia’s palaeo­
records also provide information on a range of climate-influencing factors including:
• the West Pacific Warm Pool
• the Indian Ocean Dipole
• the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
• tropical monsoon flow
• mid-latitude westerlies
• Southern Ocean circulation.
Finally, sites in the Australian region provide valuable data about climate change and climate change impacts
on a global scale, for example:
• ice cores provide valuable information about changes in greenhouse gas concentrations
• tree rings can be used to explore changes in the global carbon budget
• corals and microfossils in marine environments help reconstruct past sea level changes.
Overall, Australia is in a unique position to contribute to a regional and global understanding of how climate
systems have operated and how shifts in global climate systems have impacted on our regional climates in
the past.

Australia is in a unique position to

contribute to a regional and global
understanding of how climate systems
operated in the past.

Department of Climate Change 7



Terrestrial records
Australia is fortunate in that it has not been affected by widespread glaciations, which are responsible for
destroying much of the evidence for past environments in large areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Although
the variety, continuity and resolution of many Australian terrestrial records have been affected by the arid
nature of much of the continent and by slow rates of sedimentation, a wide range of evidence does exist
which can provide us with valuable insights into past climates and climatic processes.

Tree rings
Since tree growth is influenced by climatic conditions, patterns in tree ring widths, density and chemical
composition reflect variations in the climate. In temperate regions, where there is a distinct growing season,
trees generally produce one ring a year. This provides an annual record of climatic conditions. Trees can
grow to be hundreds, even thousands, of years old and can provide information about the environment and
climate conditions at both annual and seasonal scales. This study of tree rings is called dendrochronology.
Although most Australian tree species do not produce consistent annual rings, tree rings from some species
have been used to:
• investigate climate change and climate variability over the last 10,000 years
• collect information about changes in atmospheric CO2 levels
• establish relationships between climatic variables and atmospheric and land surface processes.

The current range of continuous

dendrochronological records is in the order of
7,000 to 10,000 years. The longest and most
comprehensive records in Australia have been
obtained using communities of Huon pine
(Lagarostrobos franklinii), a long-lived species
endemic to Tasmania. To date, published tree ring
records from this species extend back continuously
3,700 years, although there are older records which
have yet to be placed in a proper, continuous time
frame. This includes fossilised logs believed to be
more than 38,000 years old.
Other species which are being investigated for
their palaeo-climate record potential include snow
gums, Blue Mountains ash, Australian red cedar, and
northern rainforest pine trees (such as Araucaria).
Tree rings are clearly visible on this snow gum sample.
Photo: Matthew Brookhouse The main limitation of tree ring studies is that
not all tree species are suitable, and with the best
specimens generally being found in ecologically
marginal areas, there are restrictions to the spatial
coverage of tree ring records.

The huon pine (here interspersed with eucalypts) has

provided records up to 3,700 years old. © CSIRO

8 Department of Climate Change


Cave deposits
As water runs through the ground it picks up minerals
such as calcium carbonate. When mineral-rich water
drips into caves, it leaves behind solid mineral
deposits which accumulate as icicle-like rocks that
hang from the ceiling (stalactites) and rounded
columns that grow from the floor (stalagmites). These
deposits are collectively termed speleothems.

While the water flows, the speleothems grow in thin

layers, recording the environmental conditions at
the time of deposition. The amount of growth is an
indicator of how much ground water has entered
the cave system. little growth might indicate a
Cave deposits, such as the ones in this photo, can indicate
drought, just as rapid growth could point to heavy
how much ground water has entered the cave system.
precipitation. Photo: Pauline Treble
Climate records can also be determined from the
chemical composition of the speleothems. For
• Analysis of oxygen isotopes in a speleothem record from eastern Australia has provided an excellent
reconstruction of past ENSO variation.
• Carbon isotopes have provided records of past climate and environmental conditions, including
changes in the relative abundance of certain plants in the cave area.
• Carbon isotope analysis has also determined changes in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 through

Cave deposits grow in thin layers...

little growth could indicate a drought
while rapid growth could point to
heavy precipitation.
Depending on the sampling and analysis techniques used,
Australian speleothems have provided records of annual to
seasonal resolution for periods throughout the last 200,000
years. As yet, no continuous records spanning the entire time
frame have been obtained.
Speleothem records do have limitations. Geographically,
the records are restricted to those areas containing suitable
cave deposits. Calibrating speleothem records has also been
problematic in the past, although research has begun to
verify palaeo-climatic records against nearby instrumental
records. Additionally, the relationship between the chemical
signature and climate can often be complex to interpret.
Nevertheless, much progress has been made in Australia in
this field of palaeo-research.

Wetland sediments
The moist, low oxygen environments in which lake,
swamp and bog sediments are deposited are ideal for Taking a terrestrial core from Lynch’s Crater,
the preservation of a range of fossils including pollen, Atherton Tableland, north-east Queensland.
charcoal and animal remains. These sediments also store Photo: Chris Turney.

Department of Climate Change 9


chemical, isotopic and physical signatures of

environmental change.
Analysis of sediment cores extracted from
these environments provides a wealth of proxy
evidence of past climate change, including
impacts on vegetation, fire regimes and lake
hydrology. Sediment cores can also provide
valuable information about the main drivers of
climate change and climate variability over a
range of time frames, from less than a decade
to hundreds of thousands of years. New coring
equipment and improved dating technology
has made it possible to obtain high resolution
records from these environments, which can be
linked to instrumental climate records, telling us
much about climate change and variability over
the last few centuries.
The main disadvantage of wetland sediment
records is that they are spatially biased towards
the moister climates of Australia, principally
found in the temperate and sub-tropic regions
of southern, eastern and northern Australia.
Also, as sedimentation rates in Australia are
Wetland environments are ideal for the preservation of a range generally low, these records can only provide
of fossils. © CSIRO. Photo: Robert Kerton information about long changes in our climate.
The interaction of multiple climatic and
environmental factors in producing these sediments also makes the interpretation of the climatic signals
Palaeo-records from wetland sediments have been used to provide evidence of:
• changes in the water levels of wetland environments in response to changes in rainfall and evaporation
• changes in the temperature of lake waters in response to changes in air temperature
• changes in vegetation type and, in turn, moisture availability (rainfall and evaporation) and


• changes in fire regimes in response to changes in vegetation and climate

• changes through time in patterns of climate variability and the impact of this on local and regional

River, lake and dune geomorphology

Evidence of the past extent and nature of lakes, rivers and dunes in Australia can provide valuable
information about past changes in the water balance of catchments. In particular, it can provide information
about past moisture availability, sea level change, wind strength and wind direction.
The remnants of ancient rivers found in the landscape give evidence of past river flows under different
climatic regimes. For example, the shape, size and sedimentary composition of ancient river channels, such
as those evident on the Riverine Plain of NSW, have been used to provide data on the rates and volume
of flow and in turn proxy evidence of past changes in rainfall. Ancient river terraces have also provided
evidence of periods where ground water levels changed in response to changes in sea level2.

Evidence of the past extent of rivers, lakes

and dunes can provide information about
past moisture availability, sea level change,
wind strength and wind direction.

10 Department of Climate Change


Similarly, ancient lake shorelines allow us to reconstruct

changes in lake levels in response to past climate
variability and change. By looking at the build-up of
sediments around these ancient lakes, it is also possible
to reconstruct past changes in wind direction and wind
Evidence for the movement of dune fields acts as a
proxy record of past periods of aridity and can provide
valuable information about changes in wind speed and
direction. In some cases, dune deposits are interspersed
with lake and river deposits, providing a detailed
record of wet and dry phases.
By dating these changes, scientists have a better
picture of the timing and impacts of past climate
variability and change and the drivers of these. For
example, studies of ancient rivers, lakes and dunes
have been used to reconstruct:
• the timing of major wet phases in arid and
temperate Australia
• past variability in the precipitation/evaporation


• past shifts in the circulation of the atmosphere.

These records, by their very nature, tend to be
intermittent and of coarse resolution. In addition,
the response of rivers, lakes and dunes to changes
in climate is complex and not easy to interpret. For Remnants of ancient dune system at Lake Mungo, north
example, evidence of greater river flows could be a east of Mildura in New South Wales. © CSIRO.
simple response to increased precipitation or it might Photo: John Coppi.
be as the result of a complex interaction between
a range of factors including depositional processes,
precipitation, evaporation and nearby vegetation cover.
A further limitation of these records is their geographical bias. The lake sites, for example, tend to be
clustered in the southern and eastern regions of Australia, while the dune evidence has a clear arid-zone
bias. Nevertheless, these records, particularly when taken in combination, can provide a powerful hydrologic
record of past climates in Australia.

Coastal sediments
Australian coastal sediments have much to tell us about the nature and impacts of past climate processes
and change in areas that are currently highly populated. Of particular importance are beach ridges and
coastal dunes.
Beach ridges are formed when waves and offshore winds move sediments, forming ridges parallel to the
shore. These provide useful records of the character and rate of beach sediment accumulation and of the
configuration of the coast under past climates and atmospheric circulation regimes. Sediments within these
deposits also provide a record of past sea level and the passage, frequency and magnitude of past storm
events such as cyclones.
Coastal dunes record the delivery of sand to beach systems by onshore winds. These deposits can provide
records of shoreline deposition and coastal landscape instability as well as ancient wind regimes and, in turn,
atmospheric circulation. Successions of dune deposits, such as those on the Coorong coastal plain of South
Australia, can provide long-term (over several hundred thousand years) records of dune mobility and long
quiescent periods when soil horizons were formed.

Department of Climate Change 11


The great advantage of these records is they can provide a relatively detailed history of coastal
environmental change over tens to thousands of years. The disadvantage is that they provide non­
continuous records of climate change.

Glacial deposits
Glacial deposits in the highland regions of mainland south-eastern Australia and Tasmania provide evidence
of climates during past ice ages, contributing to the understanding of past processes and drivers of climate

The analysis of glacial and inter-glacial deposits has provided estimates of past temperatures and rainfall
during glacial periods, such as the last ice age. This has improved our understanding of the regional
hydrology of south-eastern Australia during ice ages and the response of the environment to significantly
colder climates.
The most significant limitation of Australian glacial deposits is their restricted distribution and discontinuous
nature. Additionally, uncertainties associated with dating and the combined role of rainfall and temperature
in glacier formation can complicate the interpretation of the evidence. The strength of these landscape
features, however, is that they are one of the few proxy indicators of temperature in a landscape dominated
by the effects of changes in moisture.

Marine records
Corals have hard, calcium carbonate skeletons that form in seasonal and annual bands. These bands contain
physical, isotopic and geochemical evidence of past atmospheric and oceanic conditions at annual and sub-
annual resolution.
Physical characteristics of the bands (such as skeletal density, tissue thickness and calcification rate) provide
time-series information about the environmental conditions that controlled coral growth, such as sea surface
Measurement of stable isotopes and the geochemistry in corals can provide information about sea surface
temperature, sea surface salinity and the hydrological balance of oceans. In regions where the isotopic
composition of seawater correlates with precipitation, coral records can also be used to reconstruct
luminescent banding found in corals has been used to provide a proxy for precipitation and river run-off
from adjacent land masses. It has also been used in the identification of the movement of ocean surface
Australian scientists are at the forefront of coral research, using high quality records gathered from around
Australia and the adjacent oceans to reconstruct:
• past changes in climate variability
• movement of ocean waters

• ocean-atmospheric interactions

• atmospheric forcing of abrupt climate change

• the impact of climate change on Australian river systems.
Corals are widely distributed in tropical regions and can be accurately dated, potentially providing
continuous records that span centuries. Data extending back thousands of years can be obtained by
overlapping records.
Care must be taken when interpreting coral records to take into account biases associated with factors such
as the exposure of coral surfaces to shallower water depths, affecting temperature, salinity and light intensity
levels. This has potential ramifications for the isotopic and geochemical records obtained. Cross-matching
coral records from different locations and with instrumental records helps to identify such errors.

12 Department of Climate Change


Ocean sediments
Sediments deposited in ocean and lake basins each
year contain a variety of evidence for past climatic
conditions, including microfossils (fossils of tiny
marine organisms), and geochemical and isotopic
signatures. Analyses of the types and abundance
of fossil species, their chemical and isotopic
composition, and of the chemical composition
of the sediments themselves provide evidence of
changes in past:
• ocean circulation
• ocean productivity
• sea surface temperatures
• sea surface salinity
• sea levels
• global ice volume.
Marine cores can also capture information from
adjacent terrestrial environments. For example:
• The pollen and charcoal contained within
marine cores from around Australia have
provided evidence of shifts in vegetation
and fire regimes in response to climatic
• variations in the dust content of cores
from the Tasman Sea have been used to
reconstruct past changes in aridity, wind
direction and velocity over the Australian
Deep sea sediment cores are particularly valuable,
and can be used to piece together past global
and regional changes in oceanic and climatic
conditions. They are widely distributed, can be
correlated across large distances, and provide some
of the longest, most continuous records of past
The major drawback of marine cores is that
sedimentation rates are generally low, limiting high
resolution analyses.

Drilling coral cores. Photos: Australian Institute of Marine

Science, Eric Matson

Department of Climate Change 13


Antarctic records
There is increasing evidence that the climate of the southern high latitudes, in particular Antarctica, is
closely linked to the global climate system. Palaeo-records from Antarctica are therefore vitally important in
understanding the mechanisms of global climate change, including the influence of human activities.
Ice sheets are natural time capsules, preserving records of hundreds of thousands of years of past climate
change, variability and atmospheric composition. Each year, layers of snow fall over the ice sheets in
Greenland and Antarctica, trapping a wealth of information about the climatic and atmospheric conditions.
Depending on snowfall rates, ice records can cover
recent decades in great detail or extend back hundreds of
thousands of years. The longest records have been obtained
from the central regions of Antarctica and Greenland. Sample
resolutions on these longer cores tend to be fairly coarse
– in the order of tens of years or more – largely due to the
compaction of ice at these great depths. However, shorter
ice cores extracted from the coastal areas of Antarctica are
capable of providing much higher resolutions (up to two
weeks). The trade-off, however, is that such cores tend to
span much shorter time periods, generally of the order of
only 400 years.
Ice cores can provide an annual record of temperature,
precipitation, atmospheric composition, volcanic activity, and
Analysis of air bubbles in ice cores provides a wind patterns. For example, the thickness of each annual
means for identifying changes in atmospheric layer tells how much snow accumulated at that location
composition. during the year, providing proxy evidence of precipitation
changes, as well as an understanding of past changes in
the ice sheet mass-balance. This in turn can be used to
reconstruct past sea level variations. Analyses of fluctuations in the isotope content in ice cores have been
used to reconstruct changes in surface air temperatures over Antarctica and surrounding oceans through
time, as well as the changes in ice volume. Evidence for changes in ice volume has in turn been used to
reconstruct changes in sea levels through time. In addition, differences in cores taken from the same area
can reveal local wind patterns by showing where the snow drifted. This in turn can be used to reconstruct
changes in atmospheric circulation.
The aerosol content of Antarctic ice cores has also
been a valuable source of information about past
climate change and impacts. Aerosols are fine
particles suspended in the atmosphere, and they
Ice sheets are natural time capsules include:
• continental dust
• emissions from volcanic eruptions
• human-created sulphate and soot from biomass
Some of the ice core aerosol studies that have been carried have detected evidence of:
• changes in the extent of sea ice, conditions in the surrounding ocean, atmospheric circulation and
precipitation over Antarctica and Australia through analysis of changes in sodium concentrations,
largely produced by sea salt from the oceans surrounding Antarctica
• continental aridity, wind strength and trajectories, and indirectly, precipitation through analysis of dust
• biological productivity through time, which can be related to past climatic changes and sea ice extent,
through analysis of biogenic sulphur tracers.

14 Department of Climate Change


Ice cores also provide some of the few direct records of

climate change, in particular the past concentrations of
atmospheric gases. As snow accumulates and is compressed
in ice sheets, tiny air bubbles are trapped and preserved.
These air bubbles contain, amongst other things, a direct
record of the concentrations of atmospheric gases (such as
greenhouse gases) at the time of deposition. Analysis of these
air bubbles provides the means for identifying changes in
atmospheric composition over thousands of years.
Indeed, Antarctic records are thought to provide the most
reliable, long-term evidence of changes in global atmospheric
carbon dioxide and methane through time. From ice cores
we have been able to identify that the levels of greenhouse
gases in our atmosphere over the last 50 years far exceeds
any natural levels over at least the last 700,000 years. In
addition, analysis of the isotopic composition of greenhouse
gases contained in these ice cores has provided valuable
information about the source of the greenhouse gases – for
example, whether methane has been derived from burning
of forests or of fossil fuels.
Such records have not only improved our understanding of
the relationships between atmospheric gases and climate
but have also provided us with the means of placing recent
Ice cores provide a wealth of palaeo-climatic changes in atmospheric gas composition and climate change
information. Photos: Vin Morgan, AGAD in the context of natural variability.
© Commonwealth of Australia
A key strength of Antarctic ice cores is that they provide
evidence of Southern Hemisphere climates, as well as
atmospheric and oceanic conditions over long timescales and
at a high resolution (annual to seasonal). In particular, they
provide records of past environments where other records,
such as tree rings, cannot be gathered.
The main limitation of ice core data is that interpretation
of some proxies can often be complex and subject to bias.
For example, the relationship between snow chemistry and
atmospheric concentrations has not yet been fully determined
for aerosols and reactive gases.

Department of Climate Change 15



Australian instrumental climate records, which generally extend back to the late 19th century, give evidence
of an Australia-wide warming trend since the 1950s.
From the instrumental record we know that Australia’s mean annual maximum temperatures have increased
by 0.06°C/decade and mean minimum temperatures by 0.12°C/decade over the period 1910 to 2004. Shifts
in rainfall have been less spatially consistent, although there has been a general trend for hotter droughts.
Climate model simulations indicate that the warming is likely to have been caused by both natural variability
and the enhanced greenhouse effect. To unravel how much of the 20th century warming can be explained
by natural causes and how much by human influences, we need to examine our climate over a longer
timeframe than the instrumental record allows, and use palaeo-records.

Understanding natural climate variation

Over the course of the Earth’s history there have been several major glaciation periods consisting of multiple
advances and retreats of ice fields. Each advance (an ‘ice age’) and retreat (an ‘inter-glacial period’) is
based on natural cycles due to changes in the Earth’s orbit or the intensity of the sun. So far in our current
glaciation period we have had around 15-20 individual advances and subsequent retreats of the ice field. We
are presently in an inter-glacial period.
Palaeo-climatic records show us that the Earth’s
climate is always changing across a range of scales,
from decadal to millennial. long continuous
Palaeo-climate records how us records obtained from ice cores, marine sediments
and lake sediments give evidence of the interaction
that the Earth’s climate is always of climate cycles at various scales, ranging from
changing across a range of scales. 1,500-year to 100,000-year climatic cycles. They
also provide evidence of long-term climate trends,
such as the trend to increasing aridity in Australia
over the last 350,000 years.
By comparing records from different regions it is possible to identify spatial variation and test whether these
changes were synchronous across Australia. This not only allows us to assess the degree to which observed
changes can be explained by natural processes, but also improves our understanding of the relative effects of
local and global climate drivers.

Evidence of past changes in temperature, precipitation and other

climatic factors
Australian palaeo-records have provided considerable evidence of past variations in temperature and
precipitation. In recent years, there has been a push to bring together the growing number of palaeo­
records in order to carry out cross-regional, national scale analyses to produce a data set for the Southern
Hemisphere. This data set will provide valuable information of past variation in climate parameters in the
Australian region.
For example:
• Annual records of sea surface temperature for regions around northern and western Australia have
been derived from coral records. Integration of these records with other palaeo-records provides a
more complete picture of past climates as well as information about regional variation.
• A quantitative reconstruction of past temperature and precipitation over the last 200,000 years has
been derived from a long pollen record from western victoria. This reconstruction explores changes in
both mean and seasonal temperature as well as precipitation change, including rainfall seasonality.
• The identification of a relationship between sodium delivery to Antarctica and atmospheric circulation
has produced a 700-year proxy of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) of climate variability. This record
is now being used to model past southern Australian rainfall variability.

16 Department of Climate Change


The effects of past climate variation on high impact events

As the geographic coverage, time resolution and detail of palaeo-climate records have improved, it has
become possible to identify the effects of past climate variations on high impact events such as fire, drought,
storms, floods and sea level rise. For example:
• Evidence of past fire regimes has been predominantly derived from charcoal records extracted from
terrestrial wetland sites and near-coastal marine cores.
• Both drought and flood events associated with ENSO variability have been inferred from coral records
obtained from the Great Barrier Reef.
• Work conducted on storm deposits at Curacoa Island off the coast of north Queensland has provided a
palaeo-record of tropical cyclone frequency over the last 5,000 years, suggesting that storm frequency
in this region has remained broadly constant over this period and has been unaffected by variation in
sea surface temperatures.
• Antarctic ice cores, coral terraces and beach deposits have been used not only to reconstruct sea level
changes from around the globe, but also to explain the causes of these changes.

Palaeo-records have provided evidence of past fire regimes.

© CSIRO. Photo: Barbara McKaige

Department of Climate Change 17



Improving climate models

Information obtained from palaeo-records will ultimately improve the ability of models to accurately project
the full range of future climates at both regional and global scales. This information includes:
• the degree of natural climatic variability on longer timescales
• the behaviour of key processes in the global climate system like ENSO
• trends in specific climatic parameters, such as rainfall in south-west Western Australia
• the changing influence of different drivers of our climate system, including greenhouse gases.
Palaeo-data is important to evaluate the capacity of global climate models to simulate past climatic change.
Demonstrating that a climate model can simulate climate and climate variability over longer timescales
builds confidence in the ability of models to project future climates.
As climate modeling utilises an expanding range of Earth system processes (including vegetation, land use,
atmospheric chemistry, hydrology, ocean and land dynamic features, and ice sheet dynamics) a broader
range of palaeo-data will be needed.

Predicting future climate drivers

Greenhouse gases
An understanding of the causes of past greenhouse gas changes, and their relationship with climate, is
essential for determining the range of likely concentrations in the future and their subsequent impact on the
climate system.
Precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide began in 1957, with levels of some halogenated
compounds (such as perfluorocarbons, also known as PFCs) and isotopes of nitrous oxide only being
recorded over the past decade. These observational records are far too short to examine natural variations,
so extension into the past using palaeo-records is necessary.
The measurement of air enclosed in ice sheets is the best and most direct way of reconstructing atmospheric
gas composition over the past 500,000 years and
provides a baseline that contemporary levels can be
compared with.
The measurement of air enclosed Australian research in long-term greenhouse gas
changes has greatly benefited from analysing ice
in ice sheets is the best and most cores from Antarctica. A combination of outstanding
direct way of reconstructing ice quality with unique age resolution and leading
atmospheric gas composition air measurement techniques has resulted in the most
precise and detailed greenhouse gas records of the
over the past 500,000 years. past 1,000 years.
The records cover a period that is being intensely
studied for evidence of human-induced climate
change. Isotopic measurement confirms that
the growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations is from fossil organic sources, consistent with
the combustion of fossil fuels. The potential for identifying the source of other gases through isotopic
measurement is promising and will benefit from emerging measurement technologies which enable the
analysis of extremely small sample sizes.
Even for greenhouse gases for which past concentrations are well known, projecting future concentrations
remains difficult due to natural, technological and economic influences. However, the palaeo-record can
greatly improve our understanding of the effects of natural variation and climate feedbacks on greenhouse
gas levels in the atmosphere.

18 Department of Climate Change


Aerosols, solar irradiance and land use

Although greenhouse gas increases have had the largest impact on our climate since pre-industrial times,
changes in aerosols, solar irradiance and land cover have also affected our climate. When factored into
climate models, these forcings greatly improve the ability of models to simulate temperatures over the past
hundreds of years.
As aerosols have a short life span their influence on our climate can vary greatly in both time and space. The
reflectivity of the particles (often referred to as ‘albedo’) must also be taken into account. The direct and
indirect effects of aerosols remain uncertain.
Palaeo-records of regional dust accumulations during periods of large climate changes are also available. A
connection between mineral dust and carbon dioxide concentrations in ice cores during glacial times has
been used to estimate the iron ‘fertilisation’ effect on the uptake of carbon dioxide by oceans. Aerosols in ice
cores also provide well dated long-term records of changes in the aerosol content of our atmosphere.
Solar influences on our climate, including changes in solar irradiance (the energy output of the sun) and
the shape of the Earth’s orbit, vary in time. Measurements of the atmospheric production rates of isotopes
beryllium-10 and carbon-14 can be used as proxy indicators of solar activity. These isotopes are preserved in
ice and tree ring records.
Palaeo-observations of the Earth system have substantially enhanced our understanding of the role the
biosphere (in particular the vegetation-snow-albedo feedback) plays in long-term climatic changes. This
understanding has subsequently improved the ability of climate models to reproduce observed climate
Over the last few centuries, the intensity and scale of land cover changes have increased significantly. It is
estimated that over 45 percent of the Earth’s surface is currently affected by human-induced land cover
modification, which is believed to impact on the global climate. There is strong evidence that land cover
changes can influence local to regional scale climate at levels equivalent to a doubling of atmospheric
carbon dioxide.

Impact of climate change on our environment

The majority of palaeo-records, by their very nature, provide direct evidence of the impact of climate
variation on flora, fauna, water resources and landscape processes. learning how the environment
responded to past climate changes is the most accurate way of predicting the combined impacts of climate
change in the future, for example:
• Examining pollen, charcoal and tree ring records gives an insight to the effect of past climate

change and variability on the Australian flora (and, indirectly, fauna).

• Microfossil records from lakes and the oceans provide information on how aquatic fauna (freshwater
and marine) responded to shifts in climatic conditions.
• Coral cores give evidence of how corals have responded to changes in sea surface temperature, sea
surface salinity and river run-off.
• Palaeo-lake and river records provide an insight to the combined effects of changes in precipitation,
temperature and evaporation on water sources.
• Palaeo-river sequences provide evidence of erosion with high sediment loads interpreted as erosion
events associated with increased rainfall and possibly the interaction of aridity, rainfall and vegetation.
• Dust records provide valuable information about the influence of climate on erosion. For instance, dust
contained in marine records in the Tasman Sea has been used to reconstruct the scale of wind erosion
from the Australian continent under different climate regimes.

Understanding carbon sinks

The oceans and the terrestrial biosphere have been identified as the most important sinks of carbon dioxide,
however there is still debate and uncertainty over the exact degree of exchange between the atmosphere
and terrestrial carbon reservoirs.

Department of Climate Change 19


It is widely accepted that the main control of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are processes
operating within the oceans, which include:
• changes in sea surface temperature and salinity (the solubility pump)
• the supply and removal of total carbon dioxide (the biological pump)
• alkalinity of surface waters (the alkalinity pump)
• surface winds
• variations in sea ice cover.
Palaeo-records enable the reconstruction of how these drivers of oceanic-atmospheric carbon dioxide
exchange have operated in the past. For example:
• Chemical analysis of marine cores has provided an insight into the operation of the biological pump in
the Southern Ocean during significant changes to our climate.
• Tree ring studies have identified an apparent shut-down of the flux of carbon dioxide from the ocean
into the atmosphere during El Niño events.
Palaeo-records also
indicate fluctuations in
atmospheric carbon under
different climate regimes
and, importantly, allow
us to investigate past
interactions between
carbon sinks and the
Ice core evidence shows
significant fluctuations
in atmospheric carbon
dioxide levels in response
to the onset of glacial and
inter-glacial periods. These
levels typically increased
between 80 and 100
ppm as climates became
warmer in the transitions
Records indicate the ocean has been a sink of carbon dioxide throughout most from glacial to inter-glacial
of the past 200 years.
Evidence of carbon cycling over the last few hundred years using modelling of ice core data shows how the
terrestrial biosphere has changed from a carbon source to a sink in more recent decades. Natural climatic
variations, often connected with ENSO, have also influenced terrestrial carbon dioxide uptake. Records
indicate the ocean has been a sink of carbon dioxide throughout most of the past 200 years. How the
Australian terrestrial carbon sinks will respond to increasing carbon dioxide in the future is a new area of
uncertainty in future Australian climate change scenarios.

20 Department of Climate Change



In recent years there has been significant progress in developing more sophisticated and higher resolution
palaeo-climate records. These advances are opening up exciting opportunities to extend climate records
back far beyond the instrumental records and improve our understanding of climatic variability. It will also
help determine how climate change affects terrestrial and marine environments. This information can, in
turn, provide valuable input to decisions on how to plan for the impacts of future climate change.
However, there are still many important gaps in our knowledge of past climates. This is particularly true for
records which provide information about short-term climate variations. The majority of records extend back
only a few thousand years, so do not encompass the full range of possible natural variability. In some cases
(such as with ice core and lake sediment records) there is potential for extension considerably further back in
There also exists a distinct spatial bias in palaeo-records within the Australian region which needs to be
overcome. This is largely a factor of site suitability, but is also due to the relatively small number of
researchers working in the Australian region (relative to efforts in the Northern Hemisphere).
There are many sites and avenues of palaeo-science yet to be explored. More spatial information is required
to help understand the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, while more accurate, high-resolution dating
is necessary to reveal the mechanisms of past climatic change. There is also much to be learnt from applying
new dating techniques to key palaeo-records that have already been obtained.
At present, much of the research effort of the
Australian palaeo-science community and its
collaborators has been focused on the acquisition
There are many sites and of records, with only limited comparisons being
avenues of palaeo-science yet undertaken. In essence, only now is there sufficient
coverage to carry out multi-proxy, cross-regional
to be explored. comparisons and correlations. Some efforts are
being made in this area, but further coordination
between researchers would be of significant benefit.
So far, such efforts have largely been driven by researchers and data sets from the Northern Hemisphere.
In many cases, the Southern Hemisphere data is inadequately represented. We are now in the position to
bring together the growing number of palaeo-records in order to produce a climate reconstruction for the
Southern Hemisphere. Australia is the only country with the research capacity and infrastructure to lead
efforts in using palaeo-data to test climate models for our region.
Finally, there is a need for palaeo-scientists to improve the communication with policy makers and natural
resource managers. There is significant potential for palaeo-records to improve our understanding of the
climate system and provide an insight into how our environment will respond to future climate change.
Australia is well placed to make major contributions in the area of palaeo-science – which will ultimately play
a pivotal role in understanding and constraining uncertainties about future climate change and its potential
impacts for Australia.

Department of Climate Change 21



More information is available in Building a future on knowledge from the past: what palaeo-science can
revealabout climate change and its potential impacts in Australia, a scientific report prepared for the Department
of Climate Change.
The full report, including a comprehensive reference list of the scientific papers cited, can be obtained at

aerosol fine liquid or solid particles in the atmosphere, e.g. dust, smog, fog
albedo a measure of reflectivity
carbon sink a process taking in CO2 from the atmosphere
dendrochronology the analysis of annual tree rings
ENSO El Niño-Southern Oscillation
geomorphology characteristics of landforms
glacial the cold stage of a fixed cycle of warm and cool periods during a major
ice age (such as the Quaternary), during which glaciers advance across
much of the globe.
Indian Ocean Dipole anomalous warming and cooling of sea surface temperatures
inter-glacial the warm stage of a fixed cycle of warm and cool periods during a major
ice age (such as the Quaternary), during which climates ameliorates to
similar levels to those of today.
palaeo from Greek palaios meaning old, ancient or prehistoric. Commonly used
to denote evidence of past environments not contained in instrumental or
documented records (commonly known as historic records)
radioactive isotope a radionuclide is an atom with an unstable nucleus. The radionuclide
undergoes radioactive decay by emitting a gamma ray(s) and/or
subatomic particles.
radiocarbon Carbon-14
speleothem a mineral deposit of calcium carbonate that precipitates from solution in
a cave. The two most common forms are stalagmites (which extend up
from a cave floor) and stalactites (which extend down from a cave roof).
stable isotope an isotope of a chemical element which is not spontaneously radioactive
West Pacific Warm Pool a body of warm water extending through the waters off Sumatra, Java,
Borneo, and New Guinea, and into the central Pacific Ocean.


After Williams, M., D. Dunkerley, Kershaw, P., Chappell, J. (1998). Quaternary Environments. london, Arnold. p 271.
Williams, M., D. Dunkerley, Kershaw, P., Chappell, J. (1998). Quaternary Environments. london, Arnold.
See Hua, Q., Woodroffe, C.D., Barbetti, M., Smithers, S.G., Zoppi, U. and Fink, D. (2004). Marine reservoir
correction for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Indian Ocean. Radiocarbon, 46(2): 603-610.
Hughen, K.A., Baillie, M.G.l., Bard, E., Beck, J.W., Bertrand, C.J.H., Blackwell, P.G., Buck, C.E., Burr, G.S., Cutler,
K.B., Damon, P.E., Edwards, R.l., Fairbanks, R.G., Friedrich, M., Guilderson, T.P., Kromer, B., McCormac, G.,
Manning, S., Ramsey, C.B., Reimer, P.J., Reimer, R.W., Remmele, S., Southon, J.R., Stuiver, M., Talamo, S., Taylor,
F.W.; van der Plicht, J. and Weyhenmeyer, C.E. (2004). MARINE04 marine radiocarbon age calibration, 0-26 cal kyr
BP. Radiocarbon, 46(3): 1059–1086.

22 Department of Climate Change