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Blowing in the Wind: Pollen’s Mobility as a Challenge to Measuring Climate by Proxy, 1916–1939

Abstract

This article examines how geologists, botanists, and ecologists used pollen as a proxy for past climates in the first half of the twentieth century. It focuses on a particular challenge of measuring climate with pollen: pollen’s mobility. As scientists came to learn, pollen from some vegetation is more mobile than others. Pollen’s differential mobility challenged regional climatic conclusions because of the potential mixing of pollen from various locations. To minimize the effects of this problem, pollen analysts sought to decrease the noise produced by highly local or foreign pollen. Yet, many ground-truthing and calibration methods were not available to pollen analysts because of the temporal separation between the observer and the object of interest. Instead, pollen analysts had to make spatial meaning out of fossil pollen using empirical studies of modern pollen, inferences from macrofossils and successional history, and applying statistical theories to fossil pollen data. Many of these corrections factors relied on pollen analysts’ knowledge of place, including elements like the location’s topography, prevailing winds, and plant cover. These elements were a natural part of vegetation-pollen-climate interactions. Scientists needed to account for them to turn pollen into a proxy for climate. Pollen’s movement was equally natural, but scientists decided to eliminate some pollen to augment the regional climate signal. These selective eliminations of place suggest that not all elements of place are equally important. Scientists had to omit some elements of place to make sense of the complexities of the natural world.

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Notes

  1. I use the term “pollen analysis” to describe the techniques that relied on fossil pollen to measure past climates. These techniques had other names including pollen statistics and palynology (a term introduced in 1944). In some instances, scientists employing pollen analysis were more interested in reconstructing vegetation communities, rather than climate. All of the examples of pollen analysis discussed here considered how fossil pollen related to climate. Similarly, I use “pollen analyst” to describe the geologists, ecologists, paleoecologists, and botanists interested in the pollen-climate relationship.

  2. Kohler (2002a, b) is an exception. He focuses on measurement practices in the field, showing how many instruments and practices were adapted from the lab.

  3. Notes on Erdtman, O. Gunnar E., “Pollenanalytische Untersuchuagen von Tofmooren und marinea Sedimenten in Sudwestschweden, 1921,” ca. 1925, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 5, Folder 14, Special Collections, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. (Hereafter PBS-UA).

  4. Paul B. Sears, “A Pollen Spectrum Distorted by Wind,” 1934, Paul Bigelow Sears Papers, MS663, Box 91, Folder 123, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University, New Haven, CT (Hereafter PBS-Yale).

  5. Paul B. Sears to Dorothy Flynn, March 9, 1932, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 2, Folder 7, PBS-UA.

  6. Paul B. Sears to Russell C. Artist, July 20, 1938, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 2, Folder 1, PBS-UA.

  7. Paul B. Sears to Ben Osborn, April 21, 1939. Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 2, Folder 16, PBS-UA.

  8. Paul B. Sears to Edgar B. Howard, February 12, 1935, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 1, Folder 9, PBS-UA.

  9. Sears, “A Pollen Spectrum Distorted by Wind,” 1934, Paul Bigelow Sears Papers, MS663, Box 91, Folder 123, PBS-Yale; Knut Faegri to Edward S. Deevey, n.d., Edward S. Deevey Papers, MS 239, Box 1, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida, Gainsville, FL.

  10. Russell C. Artist to Paul B. Sears, June 28, 1938, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 1, Folder 2, PBS-UA.

  11. Paul B. Sears to Russell C. Artist, June 1, 1938, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 2, Folder 1, PBS-UA. Underlining in original.

  12. Paul B. Sears to Bernard C. Patten Jr., January 26 1954, Paul Bigelow Sears Papers, MS663, Box 76a, Folder 1024, PBS-Yale.

  13. Sears, “A Pollen Spectrum disturbed by Wind,” 1934, Paul Bigelow Sears Papers, MS663, Box 91, Folder 123, PBS-Yale..

  14. Merritt Lyndon Fernald to Paul B. Sears, October 22, 1934, Paul B. Sears Collection, MS 455, Box 1, Folder 7, PBS-UA.

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This work was supported by a residential fellowship from the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Charenko, M. Blowing in the Wind: Pollen’s Mobility as a Challenge to Measuring Climate by Proxy, 1916–1939. J Hist Biol (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-022-09677-6

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Keywords

  • Pollen analysis
  • Proxy
  • Measurement
  • Climate
  • Place