Improved spectral comparisons of paleoclimate models and observations via proxy system modeling: Implications for multi-decadal variability

S. G. Dee, L. A. Parsons, G. R. Loope, J. T. Overpeck, T. R. Ault, J. Emile-Geay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


The spectral characteristics of paleoclimate observations spanning the last millennium suggest the presence of significant low-frequency (multi-decadal to centennial scale) variability in the climate system. Since this low-frequency climate variability is critical for climate predictions on societally-relevant scales, it is essential to establish whether General Circulation models (GCMs) are able to simulate it faithfully. Recent studies find large discrepancies between models and paleoclimate data at low frequencies, prompting concerns surrounding the ability of GCMs to predict long-term, high-magnitude variability under greenhouse forcing (Laepple and Huybers, 2014a, 2014b). However, efforts to ground climate model simulations directly in paleoclimate observations are impeded by fundamental differences between models and the proxy data: proxy systems often record a multivariate and/or nonlinear response to climate, precluding a direct comparison to GCM output. In this paper we bridge this gap via a forward proxy modeling approach, coupled to an isotope-enabled GCM. This allows us to disentangle the various contributions to signals embedded in ice cores, speleothem calcite, coral aragonite, tree-ring width, and tree-ring cellulose. The paper addresses the following questions: (1) do forward-modeled “pseudoproxies” exhibit variability comparable to proxy data? (2) if not, which processes alter the shape of the spectrum of simulated climate variability, and are these processes broadly distinguishable from climate? We apply our method to representative case studies, and broaden these insights with an analysis of the PAGES2k database (PAGES2K Consortium, 2013). We find that current proxy system models (PSMs) can help resolve model-data discrepancies on interannual to decadal timescales, but cannot account for the mismatch in variance on multi-decadal to centennial timescales. We conclude that, specific to this set of PSMs and isotope-enabled model, the paleoclimate record may exhibit larger low-frequency variability than GCMs currently simulate, indicative of incomplete physics and/or forcings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34-46
Number of pages13
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Oct 15 2017


  • climate variability
  • data-model comparison
  • general circulation models
  • paleoclimatology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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