We’re careening toward 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’ 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 and 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 hallowed halls of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science he frequented as a kid to take an internship with the paleontology department. If Speilbergian animatronics and fossil collections hooked him, it was the prospect of field work that reeled Hank in. 

“I knew I loved dinosaurs, but what I really wanted was to be out camping in these beautiful, desolate places,” Hank laughs. “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.”

As a current University of Southern California graduate 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 felt prepared physically but mentally but I couldn’t help but giggle and pinch myself thinking of how cool it was that this was my laboratory for two months.”

Clad in mountaineering boots, a bright red puffy and an ear-to-ear smile, the digsite photos of Hank (with duct tape by his side) show a frozen landscape that would have been unrecognizable to long-dead dinosaurs, most of which perished during the late Cretacous period. Approximately 65 million years ago, it’s believed to be the height of dinosaur diversity and one of the longest and most studied greenhouse periods in Earth’s history — in many ways, it’s our last, best record of what happens when our planet 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 most deadly since an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs. That’s why paleontologists like Hank are looking back for clues to our survival — way back.

It’s human nature to look forward — just maybe not too far forward. For most of us, comprehending deep time (a term introduced in the ‘80s to describe the concept of the multibillion-year timeframe within which scientists believe Earth has existed) is nearly impossible, which might help explain why our short-term decisions have been causing long-term environmental problems for decades. 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 recognize the urgency to reverse course. He’s one of a growing number of young 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 Earths’ 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—no pun intended—this cycle forward at such an accelerated rate that organisms don’t have time to adapt to or resist change. That means species that managed to survive in the past may not have the same success bouncing back should another extinction event occur. According to Hank, it’s what makes our impending extinction especially lethal. Humans are at a fork in the road where we’ll need to decide what kind of responsibility we have to step in to help ecosystems adjust. 

To do that, 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 fossilized lizards and snakes, two animals that not only survived the last extinction, but have thrived in the millenia since.

“When I was figuring out what I wanted to study, I realized 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,” Hanks 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 kind of what scientists like Hank are trying to create: dioramas for climate change that can help give us 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 to 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.” 

When it comes to urgency, natural ecosystems aren’t the only ones that need support right now. A survey from the American Alliance of Museums suggests that one-third of U.S. museums are at “significant risk” of closing permanently due to the on-going effects of COVID-19. Scientists like Hank have been all but shut out of field work and access to museum collections. 

“I haven’t been allowed onto museum grounds since the lockdown began in March of 2020. A huge part of my research is being in front of a specimen,” says Hank. “I got into this job for the fieldwork, but students like me are learning to adapt our science. I’m discovering there are new ways to work with data that’s available digitally and study 3D fossils that have been CT-scanned. It’s been part of my research I may have ignored had we not had a pandemic because I’d have been so busy preparing for expeditions or traveling. I’m having a blast because I can cast a much wider net on the questions I want to answer using these big data sets and address biases in the way we collect fossils.”

In a time when scientists are having to not only defend their theories but the validity of science itself, it’s hard not to feel like the shuttering of museums is yet another major blow to the public’s understanding of just how urgent an issue rapid climate change is. But like any resilient ecosystem, they’re adapting. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (where Hank is one of the Dinosaur Institute’s Graduate Student-in-Residence) has been asking people to send in artifacts and mementos from the pandemic, actively recording history as it happens in real time. Hank admits we need to start propping up these institutions if we want to see them survive—if not for access to physical collections, then to keep cultivating the next generation of young scientists.

“Nothing compares to seeing dinosaur bones close up,” he argues. “Every kid knows about dinosaurs and it’s a great way to inspire young people to pursue a career in science. Not only are these animals cool, but have you thought about the way they lived? What the plants they ate may have looked like? Why some dinosaurs are still around? Fossils hook people—they’re an incredible gateway into the sciences.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily sell my work 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 broader public support as the crisis escalates. I believe we can figure out how to solve some of these problems. Humans are learners, if nothing else.”

While there may be no simple answers to our survival through the current climate crisis and potential future extinction events, Hank hopes his contributions to the depth of knowledge we house inside museum walls—and increasingly, on digital platforms—can better inform modern conservation efforts while fostering a community that values science and academic interest. Because, he jokes, if we figure out how to manage the climate crisis, then maybe he can get back to answering the important questions. 

“I basically get asked two things about my work and I think they are both inspired by ‘90s paleontology pop culture: Am I like Ross from Friends? And can we bring dinosaurs back?” Hank laughs. “Sadly, the answer to both is no.”