The Case of Irish Oaks Tree Rings

Queen’s University Belfast holds an extensive database on tree rings, particularly Irish oaks; information that may be used in the reconstruction of past climate conditions.  A request for this information from Doug Keenan under the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Legislation was disputed on the basis of intellectual property rights, compliance costs and usefulness of the information as a proxy for temperature. 

John Abbot and I review the saga and its implications in a new paper:

Accessing environmental information relating to climate change: the case of Irish oaks tree rings. Environmental Law and Management 2010 Volume 22, Issue 4, 172-181.

Quoting from the paper,

“The QUB case suggests a degree of misunderstanding with respect to some of the legal issues, which is not entirely surprising. The case also reveals confusion amongst the dendroclimatology community as to exactly which trees are useful to reconstruct past temperatures, arguably a more significant finding given the reliance on these interpretations in formulating public policy…

“Much of the tree ring data requested by Mr Keenan specifically related to Irish oaks. According to Mr Keenan, this data is extremely valuable for global warming studies for reconstructing temperatures over past millennia.  Professor Mike Baillie [a recognized expert in dendrochronology who became the public voice for QUB], however, disputes this, claiming that the oak data is not relevant to temperature reconstruction records. 

‘Although ancient oaks could give an indication of oneoff dramatic climatic events, such as droughts, they were not useful as a temperature proxy because they were highly sensitive to water availability as well as past temperatures. In my view it would be dangerous to try and make interpretations about the temperature from this data. It’s been dressed up as though we are suppressing climate data, but we have never produced climate records from our tree rings.’

Dr Rob Wilson from the University of St Andrews tree ring laboratory has concurred, stating that ‘oaks were virtually useless as a temperature proxy’.

In 1982 Professor Baillie and co-workers did in fact publish a study using oaks from 13 sites in Britain including some from Ireland, reporting temperature and rainfall reconstructions. In more recent technical publications Baillie and co-workers, however, explain that 20 years
ago dendroclimatic studies using Irish oaks were discontinued because trees growing in the British Isles are less sensitive to temperature than trees in Scandinavia and Siberia…

In light of these reservations that the temperature signal from oak trees may be difficult to determine, it is relevant to note that a multi-proxy study incorporating 47 data series, of which 37 were based on tree ring widths, with 7 from oaks, including 1 from Northern Ireland
spanning the period 1001–1970, was cited in the 2007 IPCC report.

More recently, Professor Michael Mann and co-workers have incorporated tree ring data from oaks, including Irish oak data from QUB, in multi-proxy temperature reconstructions of the last millennium in support of their famous ‘hockey stick’ temperature proxies which featured prominently in the 2001 IPCC reports, which later came under intense scrutiny for its statistical validity. In this technical paper more than 110 datasets from oaks were included in a primary set of 926 tree rings from the International Tree Ring Data Bank. For some multi-proxy reconstructions this primary dataset was reduced to 484 by statistical screening, but it is unclear to what extent the oak data was retained.

6 Responses to The Case of Irish Oaks Tree Rings

  1. cohenite November 28, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    Remarkable; AGW is not even consistent with its own standards, whatever they are.

  2. el gordo November 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Found this at Wiki

    In 2010, Baillie became involved in a controversy over the release of his tree-ring data. Baillie claims that the tree-ring data is his own personal intellectual property. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office, however, ruled that, because Baillie did all the work while employed at a public university, the data must be released to the public.

  3. Douglas J. Keenan November 29, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    Much thanks for this! It is quite interesting, and educating, for me to see the legal lines of reasoning. Following are a few comments.

    Your article puts it well, I think, about how Baillie “felt a deep sense of personal ownership”—and that indeed was the main driving force behind QUB’s reluctance to disclose the data. Several people had speculated that there was some secret information in the data that would conflict with global warming advocacy; such speculations were incorrect.

    Having said that, the measurements were on floppy disks that were over a decade old; such disks rot. Hence my pushing for the disclosure perhaps saved the 40 years of research from being lost.

    Also, some colleagues in Sweden have done some analysis of the tree-ring measurements, and this seems to suggest there might be some problems with how QUB did its tree-ring matching:
    http://www.cybis.se/belfast/
    Because of Baillie’s possessiveness, QUB’s work has never been independently scrutinized/audited, which obviously brings about unnecessary risks to quality.

    As your article rightly says, QUB has still not released the locations. The tree locations are apparently not properly written down anywhere: there are just some brief notes; the researchers have the details in their memories—and there are seemingly only two researchers in the world that have those details: Baillie and a colleague at QUB, David Brown. And Baillie retired a couple years ago. I will be pushing to get the locations, especially now that I realize they could be lost forever. I really appreciate the discussion about locations in the section “Information on tree rings not in electronic format”—that might prove useful.

    Page 180a has quotes from Mike Baillie and Rob Wilson expressing their positions of strong skepticism about using tree rings as temperature proxies. Those positions are strange for me, because I got the idea of using Irish oaks as a temperature proxy from Baillie, in 1997—
    http://www.informath.org/apprise/a3900/b910.htm
    —and in 2008, Wilson co-authored a paper claiming the oaks in south-western Scotland could be used as a temperature proxy—
    http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~rjsw/all%20pdfs/Loaderetal2008.pdf
    There is a lot more to all this. Your article’s main point here though—”Our present view, on the available evidence, is that there are indeed uncertainties in the use of Irish oaks as temperature proxies …”—is definitely valid.

    Page 181a rightly states “If the FoI legislation is to operate as intended, there needs to be a better understanding of compliance obligations and cultural change within universities”. Based on what has happened since April, the QUB administration has had that change: their communications with me have been consistently helpful and cordial. Baillie, however, has not changed: he continues with his fabrications, including saying that I got his data before he had a chance to finish preparing it—even though almost all the data was gathered decades ago, and been the subject of many research papers, and Baillie is now retired. The THE published a credulous story partially based on those fabrications:
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=412475
    (see too my comment there).

    UEA Vice Chancellor Acton has picked up on Baillie’s theme and issued a press release with similar misrepresentations, (mis)citing the FoI Act and what happened with QUB:
    http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/CRUstatements/statements/FOIopinion
    And Phil Jones gave an interview to New Scientist magazine in July, which published his criticisms of the FoI Act without doing any checking. The Times of London was going to publish a similar story: they checked with me though, and I detailed how all of Jones’ criticisms were invalid—and the story never ran.

    The last paragraph of your article seems to criticize Baillie for not previously speaking out about Mann’s use of Irish oaks as temperature proxies. Baillie responded to that criticism in The Guardian on May 11th (the response is cited in your article). His response claimed that he was unaware that Mann had used Irish oaks, and pointed out that he is not a dendroclimatologist, but rather a dendrochronologist—and so he should not be expected to have been aware. Given Baillie’s previous dishonesty, it is not certain that he should be believed, but his response is credible. I would give him the benefit here.

  4. cinders November 29, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    see also similar tale at climate Research news
    http://climateresearchnews.com/2010/04/119-useless-oak-tree-ring-chronologies-used-by-mann-et-al-2008/

  5. Louis Hooffstetter December 1, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    Yet another case of ‘climatologists’ being their own worst enemies. First the data is statistically tortured by a pro AGW researcher (Mann) to misconstrue a climate proxy that eradicates the Medieval Warming Period and “proves” AGW. But later, a skeptical scientist (Keenan) is denied access because “the data is not relevant to temperature reconstruction records”.

    Don’t these ‘climatologists’ realize that such hypocrisy just makes people even more skeptical? You can’t have it both ways. Either the data is a valid temperature proxy, or its not. And if its “not relevant to temperature reconstruction records”, publish a paper refuting MBH 98 and all subsequent papers that claim to vindicate it.

    Whenever researchers refuse to release data or methods, there’s a reason, and it’s never good.

  6. Ian Mott December 4, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    By all means chase up the data before it is lost. But I have been pointing out the flaws in tree ring data for a few years now. It is not just water that can distort the rings. In any European forest the simple fact that competing stems may have been removed for timber will also distort the growth patterns as the remaining tree benefits from the lack of competition.

    In the UK the situation is compounded by the fact that all forests after Henry 8th were required to be managed on a “coppice with standards” basis. That is, 12 stems/acre, (standards) usually Oak, were required to be grown to maturity for the supply of wood for the Navy. The trees in between were managed on a short term “coppice” rotation with multiple stems cut every 7 to 15 years and split for hurdle making, broom sticks, firewood, baskets, crab pots and a huge range of consumer products. And of course, regardless of temperature or rainfall, the widest spaced rings in the standards were formed in the years immediately after each coppice harvest before the stumps were back to full capacity.

    Yes, the keeper of the records may be a touch over possessive but he may also be an outraged by-stander with a sincere concern for what the climate scum might do with his life’s work.

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