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Digging for Answers

Johnie Gall

We’re entering Earth’s sixth mass extinction, but clues about this climate crisis could be right under our feet.

 

 

On the long, long, long timescale of Earth’s existence, we’re a blip. The advent of the wheel, the moon landing, Bernie Sanders’s mittens– mankind’s most formative moments hardly register when placed against the enormity of our planet’s history. All 30-year-old paleontologist Hank Woolley knows is that he turned four at just the right moment in pop culture.

 

“The Denver Museum of Nature & Science debuted its Prehistoric Journey dinosaur hall in 1995, which was around the same year that Jurassic Park came out,” says the Colorado-born scientist. “I was hooked. It was all dinosaurs, all the time from there.”

 

After a stint working in real estate and studying history in college, Hank returned to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science he frequented as a kid for an internship with the paleontology department. If Spielbergian animatronics and fossil collections hooked him, it was the prospect of fieldwork that reeled Hank in.

 

“Every dig I go on is my favorite dig. It’s the magic of being out in the desert and walking around a corner and maybe finding the next great fossil discovery,” says Hank. “I knew I loved dinosaurs, but what I really wanted was to be out camping in these beautiful, desolate places.”

 

As a current University of Southern California doctoral student and the Dinosaur Institute Graduate Student-in-Residence at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, his paleontological research has often required fossil-hunting expeditions in public lands throughout the American West, Madagascar and Antarctica.

 

“We had to camp on glaciers in Antarctica in order to access these preserved fossils. You need to take helicopters up to the mountaintops where it’s too windy for snow to accumulate,” Hank recalls. “And you aren’t digging through ice – you’re digging through really, really hard rock. We had to use construction equipment like jackhammers and diamond-bladed rock saws. The mountaineers we were traveling with usually spend their summers up on Denali and managed the ‘science camp’ we lived in on the glacier. I couldn’t help but giggle and pinch myself thinking of how cool it was that this was my laboratory for two months.”

 

 

Fossils give us clues about what ancient ecosystems and climates were like, and more often than not, they were vastly different from the current climates in which they are found. Here, Hank works on excavating the remains of a 250-million-year-old amphibian skull on the slopes of Shenk Peak in the central Transantarctic Mountains, Antarctica. Photo: Akiko Shinya

 

 

Clad in mountaineering boots, a bright red puffy and an ear-to-ear smile, the dig site photos of Hank show a frozen landscape that would have been unrecognisable to dinosaurs, most of which perished during the Late Cretaceous period approximately 65 million years ago. Just before a massive asteroid hit Earth, this era is believed to be the height of dinosaur diversity and one of the longest and most studied greenhouse periods in our planet’s history – in many ways, it’s our last, best record of what happens when the Earth begins to warm due to a concentration of atmospheric carbon. There have been five major mass extinction events that we know of, and many scientists believe we’re currently careening toward the sixth, a man-made disaster that has the potential to be the deadliest since an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs. That’s why paleontologists like Hank are looking back in time for clues to our survival.

 

“There have been several periods in Earth’s past when there were rapid rises in temperature. It just wasn’t due to animals making automobiles and driving around,” he explains. “It was due to volcanic activity, but it’s the same simple chemistry. Going back and learning about these greenhouse intervals helps us predict what life might look like as we continue our real-life experiment of adding carbon to the atmosphere. The geologic fossil record is like a history textbook for the planet, and we’re figuring out how to read it.”

 

 

Paleontological fieldwork usually begins with prospecting—in other words, hiking around in beautiful places while keeping an eye out for any prehistoric bone fragments. Not a bad job perk. Photo: Will Strathmann

 

 

Hank is among a generation of young scientists born at the unique moment in human history when we began to both better understand our impact on the environment and recognise the urgency to reverse course. He’s one of a growing number of paleontologists who want to use the information gained from our planet’s hotter past to help predict and manage changes to ecosystems in response to our current climate crisis.

 

“Anyone who loves nonfiction can tell you: If you don’t learn about history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” says Hank. “In the mid-20th century, before we had wide acceptance of climate change, mass extinctions were a fun way to look at Earth’s biological processes. But now there’s something at stake – our futures – and we’re trying to figure out the plan for surviving and if we’re even capable of it.”

 

There’s always been a natural cyclicity to Earth, but humans are driving this cycle forward at such an accelerated rate that organisms don’t have time to adapt to it or resist change. According to Hank, that is why it is harder to predict if species that managed to survive in the past will have the same success bouncing back should another extinction event occur.

 

 

“That’s the endeavor of paleontology: to figure out why some species go extinct and why some don’t.”

 

 

To better understand how this might play out for humankind, paleontologists are looking at some of the planet’s most resilient species and how they lived in order to create a baseline – a future-thinking application for paleontology that’s so new. “Even our favorite paleontologist, Ross from the show Friends, wouldn’t have worked on it,” Hank jokes. While some of his lab mates focus on prehistoric oceans and the resilience of coral reefs, Hank is interested in deciphering patterns using fossilised lizards and snakes, two animals that not only survived the last extinction but also thrived in the millennia since.

 

“When I was figuring out what I wanted to study, I realised there was a significant gap in interest in looking at these little reptiles that not only lived alongside larger, more charismatic dinosaurs but made it through an extinction and actually flourished,” Hank explains. “The thing is, we don’t know why. There’s no smoking gun. That’s the endeavor of paleontology: to figure out why some species go extinct and why some don’t.”

 

It’s the towering reconstructions of theropods and velociraptors that have always instilled awe in museum goers, but the vignettes they’re set against – artificial rocks, skyscapes and trees – offer a freeze-frame glimpse at the environment in which they lived. That’s similar to what scientists like Hank are trying to create: dioramas for climate change that can help us gain perspective on what a truly sustainable future might look like.

 

“We’ve found everything from large dinosaur teeth and tiny lizard scales to turtle shells and crocodile parts on digs,” explains Hank. “If you’re lucky, when you find a dinosaur, you also find other animal and plant fossils beside it, and you start to get better at constructing a bigger picture.”

 

Where you find fossils, you also find contextual clues that, when pieced together, help scientists construct a more holistic view of what an adaptable, resilient ecosystem actually looks like in the midst of a changing climate. Figure that out and you can provide modern conservation groups with the data they need to influence policy and target the species that most need support.

 

“Humans have only been around for some 200,000 years. We have no experience living on a planet with no polar ice caps, but humans are the most adaptable species Earth has ever hosted,” says Hank. “No one is going to look at my data and say, ‘Oh, these lizard fossils demonstrate how we save humans.’ But what I can do is contribute useful data that makes up a mosaic of millions of data points that modern biologists and ecologists can then use to help us manage planetary changes. So that’s my goal: provide some facts and inspire some action. Urgency is just a different kind of inspiration.

 

“I wouldn’t necessarily sell my work in paleontology as public service, but I do want to fight for a world where we depend on science,” Hank continues. “Let’s call it measured optimism. Our survival is going to depend on global leadership, but there’s going to [be a] need for broader public support as the crisis escalates. I believe we can figure out how to solve some of these problems if we collectively start to act now. Humans are learners, if nothing else.”

 

 

Banner Image: In a sandbox this big, you find more than a used BAND-AID. Hank Woolley (left) helps a team of volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science uncover the fossilised remains of a dinosaur eroding out of a hillside in Northwest New Mexico. Photo: Will Strathmann

 

 

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Johnie Gall

Johnie is a writer and photographer exploring
stories about humans and our relationships with
nature and science.

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