Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows
Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

3.3 Proxy data and past climates

The process of analysis and checking for plausible mechanisms using proxy data has revolutionised the study of past climates. This is because many parts of the environment respond to climate: they change if the climate becomes warmer, or wetter, and so on. Wherever these changes are preserved, they serve as a record of the past climates.

For example, the thickness of annual layers in an ice core is a simple proxy for moisture in the atmosphere at the time snow fell. This is because more snow forms and falls when the air is more moist. A thicker layer means more snow fell, so the atmosphere must have been wetter to form and hold the increased snow before it fell. A thinner annual snow layer would imply the opposite.

Another type of proxy data from ice cores is the chemical composition of the water itself. Past Antarctic temperatures can be deduced from ice cores. Past temperature records have been constructed entirely from the relative amounts of oxygen-16 and oxygen-18 isotopes (see Study note: the central part of an atom). Water molecules in the ice have a proportion of all three isotopes of oxygen in them, and it has been shown that the relative amounts of the different isotopes vary depending on the temperature of the oceans at the time the snow fell. So scientists can measure the amount of oxygen-16 compared with the amount of oxygen-18 in an annual layer of an ice core to derive the temperature at that time. The ratio of the oxygen isotopes is a proxy for the temperature of the planet.

You now know that proxy data measured in ice cores include:

  • the concentration of lead, as a proxy for global lead production
  • the thickness of annual layers, as a proxy for atmospheric moisture
  • the ratio of oxygen isotopes, as a proxy for temperature.

There are also many other types of proxy than those found in ice cores. For example, the types of pollen found in ancient lake and ocean sediments are a proxy for the temperature and rainfall in the area at the time the plants grew.

The great advantage of proxies is that they form a historical record of the planet, surviving from the past and giving information about things that cannot be observed directly. An important disadvantage is that proxy data are less accurate than direct measurements. This is because as well as measuring the proxy variable, scientists need to know the relationship between this and the variable of interest, which is an extra source of error.

The following video sees poet Nick Drake read another of his poems from The Farewell Glacier. This one is about ice cores and how they can give a picture of the past. Nick is filmed reading in the ice core laboratory at the British Antarctic Survey, which is kept at a temperature of around minus 20°C.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 5
Skip transcript: Video 5 The ice core

Transcript: Video 5 The ice core

This is the library of ice. A high security auditorium of silence far below zero. An archive of cold that keeps me as I am and reminds me of home now that it is going, going. I am a long story, 10,000 feet long, 500,000 years old. A chronicle of lost time back to the first dark, too dark for telling.
I am every winter's fall. I am the keeper of the air, of every vanished summer. I distill lost atmospheres pressed into ghosts kept close to my cold, cold heart. And as for you, what story would you like to hear on your two feet tracking the snow, two by two, two by two, two by two?
Here is the dust and music of your brief cities. Here is the ash and smoke. Here are your traffic jams and vapour trails. Here are your holidays in the sun and your masterpieces and your pop songs.
Here are your first cries and last whispers. Here is where it went right and where it went wrong. Easy come, easy go. So I know why you slice moon after moon from me, holding each fragile face up to your search lights while you measure and record the tiny cracks and snaps of my melting mysteries. Because you know you are the people who have changed nature and now you are on your own.
I have no more to tell. No questions, please, about the future, for now the great narrator, silence, takes over. Listen carefully to her story for you are in it.
End transcript: Video 5 The ice core
Video 5 The ice core
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371