Amy Hessl

Physical Geographer

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Amy Hessl

Photograph by Neil Pederson

Birthplace: California

Current City: Morgantown, West Virginia

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be an archaeologist. I used to bury things in my backyard and dig them up again. Now I am a dendrochronologist and geographer and am still deeply interested in the past, but I am focused on the interactions between humans and the environment over the past 500-1,000 years.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I had a summer job working in Yosemite National Park, where I met a famous dendrochronologist, Lisa Graumlich, who later became my advisor. She really inspired me.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation?

Earth's citizens are faced with a host of environmental problems. By looking at how the Earth has changed in the past and how peoples have responded to those changes, we can better find our way today.

What's a normal day like for you?

I wake up at 6 a.m., help get my kids off to school, and rush to work. Unlike most people (!) I can't wait to get to work so that I can answer questions about my data, write a new paper, or dream up a new research project. During the summer field season, I still wake at 6 a.m., but instead of driving my kids to school, I am hiking to my field site and coring trees by 9 a.m.

Do you have a hero?

My hero is a scientist named Dave Stahle. He has been asking and answering questions about climate change and society for decades using tree rings. He has a way of asking the right questions and interpreting his data in ways that make sense to people. He also does crazy things, like putting dead coyotes in the trunk of his car to bring home.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

The best thing that ever happened to me in the field was finding 1,500-year-old tree ring samples in Mongolia. It was part accident and part intuition. No one wanted to go to the site because we were tired, some of us were sick, and it seemed like a goose chase. But I kept insisting that we try it. Low and behold, my persistence paid off. It was probably my greatest moment but getting everyone out to the field and risking being wrong about my intuition might have been my greatest challenge.

What are your other passions?

I recently took up trail running and just ran my first mountain trail half-marathon. Next year, a full marathon!

If you could have people do one thing to help reduce the human impact on the planet, what would it be?

Vote for a tax on carbon emissions.


  • Melting snow fields in the Rocky Mountains.

    Warming Driving West's Droughts?

    Heat trumps precipitation in shrinking crucial snowpack in Rockies.

  • <p>Photo: Permafrost melt on an Alaska shoreline</p>

    TimeSigns: Now What?

    What do you get when you compare hundreds of thousands of years of climate data from glaciers, caves, and coral reefs with new climate change projections? A harrowing forecast.

In Their Words

By looking at how the Earth has changed in the past and how peoples have responded to those changes, we can better find our way today.

—Amy Hessl

Our Explorers in Action

See Photos »

Meet All Our Explorers

  • NationalGeographic_1289095-flag.jpg

    Explorers A-Z

    At the heart of our explorers program is the quest for knowledge through exploration and the people who make it possible.

  • Photo: Michael Lombardi diving

    Explorers by Category

    Browse our different areas of exploration and discover the fascinating people behind the projects.