Student / Alumna Spotlight: Arielle Woods

Geology and Environmental Science

Update 2020: Lead author of paper in Nature Communications, "Andean Drought and Glacial Retreat Tied to Greenland Warming During the Last Glacial Period"


Interviewed as Fifth Year Student

Arielle Woods in boat

How would you explain your area/s of research? 

My research uses lake sediment cores to understand natural climate variations in tropical South America over the past ~800,000 years. I analyze the stable isotope composition of oxygen, carbon, and other geochemical indicators to reconstruct changes in rainfall, monsoon strength, and the timing and magnitude of droughts in the Andes. I focus on previous interglacial periods, which were extended warm periods that are considered possible analogues for future climate change because they resemble temperatures anticipated during the 21st century.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I was initially interested in conservation biology and was able to participate in fieldwork. I became more aware of the sensitivity of biological and agricultural systems to seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns while doing fieldwork in Ecuador, Kenya, and Alaska. It became increasingly apparent that our ability to predict and adapt to changing climate conditions requires a better understanding of the many processes influencing the climate system on different timescales. Paleoclimate reconstructions can provide insights on the full range of potential variability, thereby providing a more complete framework for understanding anthropogenic climate change.

What is the significance of your research?

Existing climate models for the arid and semiarid tropics lack the spatial resolution to accurately predict changes in precipitation related to global warming. This uncertainty arises because many aspects of the climate system operate on timescales longer than the 150 years captured by historical and meteorological data, and specific regions respond to climate change differently. Documenting long-term rainfall and drought patterns allows us to better understand the global and regional climate systems, and my research can help improve the ability of climate models in the tropics to predict and prepare for current and future changes to freshwater resources. 

What has most influenced you as a scholar?

‘Climate science’ does not exist as one discrete field. It is a multidisciplinary effort between geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and many other sub-disciplines, each with a unique way of looking at the past. Working with people who study such a diverse range of topics has really influenced the way I think about connections within the climate system. I’m also inspired by the dedication people have to learning about our Earth – throughout freezing temperatures, continuous rain, illness and injuries, my lab group is utterly determined to collect tubes of mud.

Why did you choose Pitt to pursue your graduate degree?

I chose Pitt because I was specifically interested in the hydroclimate research of my advisor, Dr. Mark Abbott, and wanted to be involved in both lab work and fieldwork. The prospect of participating in a variety of different projects, based on lakes from around the world, was also appealing. So far I’ve had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in the western US, Canada, and Peru.

What are your plans after graduation?

I would like to get a postdoc position (or two) with labs that take a different methodological approach to studying paleoclimate than my current research so as to expose myself to new techniques and perspectives.