Articles | Volume 12, issue 12
Research article
21 Dec 2016
Research article |  | 21 Dec 2016

Assessing performance and seasonal bias of pollen-based climate reconstructions in a perfect model world

Kira Rehfeld, Mathias Trachsel, Richard J. Telford, and Thomas Laepple

Abstract. Reconstructions of summer, winter or annual mean temperatures based on the species composition of bio-indicators such as pollen, foraminifera or chironomids are routinely used in climate model–proxy data comparison studies. Most reconstruction algorithms exploit the joint distribution of modern spatial climate and species distribution for the development of the reconstructions. They rely on the space-for-time substitution and the specific assumption that environmental variables other than those reconstructed are not important or that their relationship with the reconstructed variable(s) should be the same in the past as in the modern spatial calibration dataset. Here we test the implications of this “correlative uniformitarianism” assumption on climate reconstructions in an ideal model world, in which climate and vegetation are known at all times. The alternate reality is a climate simulation of the last 6000 years with dynamic vegetation. Transient changes of plant functional types are considered as surrogate pollen counts and allow us to establish, apply and evaluate transfer functions in the modeled world. We find that in our model experiments the transfer function cross validation r2 is of limited use to identify reconstructible climate variables, as it only relies on the modern spatial climate–vegetation relationship. However, ordination approaches that assess the amount of fossil vegetation variance explained by the reconstructions are promising. We furthermore show that correlations between climate variables in the modern climate–vegetation relationship are systematically extended into the reconstructions. Summer temperatures, the most prominent driving variable for modeled vegetation change in the Northern Hemisphere, are accurately reconstructed. However, the amplitude of the model winter and mean annual temperature cooling between the mid-Holocene and present day is overestimated and similar to the summer trend in magnitude. This effect occurs because temporal changes of a dominant climate variable, such as summer temperatures in the model's Arctic, are imprinted on a less important variable, leading to reconstructions biased towards the dominant variable's trends. Our results, although based on a model vegetation that is inevitably simpler than reality, indicate that reconstructions of multiple climate variables based on modern spatial bio-indicator datasets should be treated with caution. Expert knowledge on the ecophysiological drivers of the proxies, as well as statistical methods that go beyond the cross validation on modern calibration datasets, are crucial to avoid misinterpretation.

Short summary
Indirect evidence on past climate comes from the former composition of ecological communities such as plants, preserved as pollen grains in sediments of lakes. Transfer functions convert relative counts of species to a climatologically meaningful scale (e.g. annual mean temperature in degrees C). We show that the fundamental assumptions in the algorithms impact the reconstruction results in he idealized model world, in particular if the reconstructed variables were not ecologically relevant.