Scientist Spotlight: Adrienne Wootten and Adaptation Planning through Climate Projections

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Learn about Adrienne Wooten, a scientist with the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Changes in regional climate can complicate important planning decisions made daily by communities and people across a variety of sectors throughout the world. Will farmers be able to continue to grow crops in areas that are getting warmer? Will legislators need to alter building codes for areas that experience weather variations? Are changes to dam infrastructure needed to withstand expected fluctuations in precipitation? Answering these questions means ensuring that scientific information and advice about regional climates and how they are changing is available and accessible to these decision-makers.

“Climate really does touch on everything,” says University of Oklahoma’s Adrienne Wootten. “It’s important to understand how the climate has already affected you in your region. Then you can ask yourself, ‘What would a changing climate mean for us in the future?’”

Adrienne Wooten stands in front of the Rio Grand on the side of a road with desert behind her.

Adrienne Wootten

As a climate scientist for the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, Wootten has a long standing awareness of extreme weather patterns, as well as the devastation extreme weather can cause vast populations of people.

“I was the geeky kid running out into the middle of the thunderstorms, much to my mother’s chagrin. For me it’s always kind of been there in a lot of ways: a love of the meteorology and the atmosphere,” says Wootten. She cites one particularly devastating weather disaster from 2005 which solidified her interest in climate. “I was just getting started in my sophomore year at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and a big conversation in the meteorology department was of course the hurricane that would go on to be named Katrina.”

Hurricane Katrina is still ranked as one of the deadliest events in United States history. At the time, Wootten considered the event an opportunity to learn more about extreme weather and signed up for the 2006 NCSU Alternative Spring Break program in which students were flown to New Orleans to contribute aid.

“I thought at the time that this is going to be a chance for me to learn about the hurricane. I got a real lesson in what it really means to people when something like this happens,” she says, eliciting the image of a giant shrimp boat sitting in the middle of the street of one of the neighborhoods she was assigned to assist. The boat had been carried there by the amount of water and movement caused by the hurricane.

“After that, I wanted to do something that got me connected with—and got science connected with—people,” says Wootten.

“It’s important to understand how the climate has already affected you in your region. Then you can ask yourself, ‘What would a changing climate mean for us in the future?’”

To do this, Wootten studies climate models, and the resulting climate projections. She says the models use mathematical formulas which incorporate “all of the fundamental physics of the atmosphere” to produce a projection of what a select region’s climate, including temperature and precipitation, might look like in the future. These climate scenarios could be invaluable to land, resource, and wildlife managers making decisions for their communities— as long as the information is communicated properly.

However, the modeling and projection process is a bit more complicated than it may sound. Regional climate projections are driven by global climate models, which are projections of climate on a global scale.

“None of the really small-scale, physical properties are represented in a global projection, but they're really important to local communities that are affected by them,” says Wootten. “When you get to areas like the South Central U.S. and even smaller areas like the Sierra Nevadas, that’s when folks really want and need regional projections.”

For her dissertation work at N.C. State, Wootten produced regional climate projections for Puerto Rico, creating simulations for the island to use in water and ecosystem management decisions.

“The water managers’ concerns were that there's going to be a decrease in precipitation in that area,” she said. “Our projections did find that the island is going to get dryer in the future, which is not necessarily good for them because most of the freshwater on that island is from rain-fed rivers”.

Another example of things that can be difficult to communicate are sources of uncertainty, which often arise when working with climate projections. Wootten is currently working on her “Three to the Fifth” project in which she and her team have developed a method to account for multiple sources of uncertainty. The project will produce 243 simulations of potential future climate in the south central United States.

Some users, such as local scientists who work in impact assessment, will happily use the whole dataset of projections. This group of users can then create even more specific projections from these simulations for topics like hydrology, agriculture, or species distribution. For instance, a hydrology projection would use Wootten’s simulations in conjunction with a hydrology model to calculate stream flow or runoff for major river basins. Wootten refers to this as “the next step in modeling.”

“Impact assessments are conducted by the folks who try to use as much of the projected information as they can,” she says. “For a decision-maker, the large amount of simulations may not be as useful. Sometimes a good summary of information is all they need.”

Projected change in the climatology of the annual number of days with rainfall based on early downscaling results.

Projected change in the climatology of the annual number of days with rainfall based on early downscaling results from the “Three to the Fifth” project for the South Central United States. Credit: South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center

In addition, comparing such a large number of regional climate projections for one area can be a daunting task. For this reason, a pivotal part of Wootten’s work involves creating two-way communication with decision-makers by attending listening sessions and workshops to ensure that the projections address the needs and concerns of regional managers and stakeholders.

“We help people decide ‘Okay, what do I need from the projections? Do I need to use all of them or can I use a subset of them?’” she says.  “We do our best to make sure that users can use a meaningful sample of the dataset.”

The regional climate projections Wootten has been working on typically simulate climate 20 to 30 years into the future. She says getting insight like this is necessary for managers in creating an effective plan for climate adaptation.

“The South Central CASC hosts training workshops to help managers understand a changing climate, how to discuss it with their communities, what the projections say and how to interpret them, and just help people make use of the science themselves without necessarily having to have a climate scientist present in everything that they do,” she says.

One personal success for Wootten has come from working with native communities who want to better understand the effects of climate change.

“A lot of that has led to great things. The citizens of the Citizen Pottawatomi Nation included some projections and guidance from us in their first climate adaptation plan,” she says. “Their particular concern was flooding near one of their casinos.”

“For me it’s always kind of been there in a lot of ways: a love of the meteorology and the atmosphere.”

Wootten’s time spent in New Orleans changed the way she views climate change. She attributes this moment to what pushed her into working for the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, and what drives her passion today. Her successes in connecting science to the people who need it has kept her in the industry.

“Helping people understand what it means is great,” she says. “But also helping scientists do things that are meaningful to people and to all those communities that are really affected by weather is important.” 

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Wootten got her bachelor’s degree in meteorology with a minor in statistics from North Carolina State University and originally planned on a career in weather forecasting. She was instead hired by the North Carolina Climate Office in 2007 and was further immersed in the world of climate science. Wanting to help people understand the impacts of climate change, she went back to NC State to get her master’s degree in atmospheric science with a new focus on statistical downscaling for seasonal prediction of rainfall and temperature. She was just starting her Ph.D. research on uncertainty associated with downscaling when the Climate Adaptation Science Centers opened in 2012. She was awarded a Global Change Research Fellowship from the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at the start of her Ph.D. in 2012 through 2014. She continued working at the North Carolina Climate Office and with the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center until receiving her Ph.D. in 2016. In January 2017, Wootten was hired by the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Oklahoma and she has been employed as a climate scientist ever since.

Check out more of her adventures below!