Local scientist will travel to Switzerland to present breaking news on climate change
By Tracy Rose
Photography by Rimas Zailskas
Illustration by Naomi Johnson
When Ahira Sánchez-Lugo was growing up in Puerto Rico, the prospect of a hurricane approaching the island filled her not with dread — but excitement.
“For me, being young, I always thought they were fun,” she says, recalling how she got to stay home from school and help her family prepare their home for the impending deluge. “For most kids, they live in a bubble. They are not aware … of potential destruction, how people are suffering.”
Then there were the storms themselves.
“Just listening to the power, to the rain, the wind, I just thought that was amazing. So I guess from a young age I was really interested in meteorology and weather events.”
Now a climatologist with the Climate Monitoring Branch of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, Sánchez-Lugo has a more seasoned perspective on hurricanes and their terrible powers of destruction — and hopes someday to use her professional training to help people better prepare for the massive storms.
Though she outgrew her teenage dream of becoming a storm chaser, her fascination with the weather remained — leading her from her hometown of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to her adopted home in Western North Carolina, with stops in the Canary Islands, Hawaii, South Korea, and, next month, Switzerland.
“I feel really lucky,” she says. “I feel like working here, not only have I learned so much, but I’ve been given so many opportunities. I am truly grateful for that.”
Although she studied meteorology in graduate school, her days are not, in fact, spent predicting the weather. “Within the Climate Monitoring Branch that I’m part of, our mission is to monitor the earth’s climate and provide the public with the information [about] Earth’s climate, putting it into an historical perspective, meaning comparing today’s climate with the past,” Sánchez-Lugo explains.
The startling national news this summer that the United States experienced its warmest July on record (it was the fourth warmest July for the planet) came from the Climate Monitoring Branch, notes Sánchez-Lugo. Although debate still simmers in some political circles over climate change and its causes, Sánchez-Lugo needs no convincing that it’s real. “For me, it’s not hard to believe that climate change is happening.”
Like anyone else, she’s privy to media information on how it’s impacting agriculture and wildlife. Perhaps more importantly, she sees the data firsthand.
“I like to receive facts,” she says. Skimming someone’s blog and just “believing what they believe” doesn’t cut it. Sánchez-Lugo takes on the research. She does the math. “I make my own decisions based on that.”
A clear, precise speaker, the 29-year-old scientist seems well suited to the task of communicating complex climate information to the general public. She exudes a cheerful sort of braininess, and it’s easy to envision her as the star student she was, hand held high to answer a teacher’s question. A math-and-science whiz, she graduated from high school a year early, then earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.
While still an undergraduate, she leaped at a chance to join a NOAA research vessel traveling from the Canary Islands off the east coast of Africa to Puerto Rico. “Back then, I didn’t think about it twice,” says Sánchez-Lugo. “I said yes to everything, to any opportunity that showed up.”
However, her first taste of international travel was not quite what she expected. She flew from Puerto Rico to meet the ship, then spent the next four days “totally sick” before she finally got her sea legs as the vessel crossed the Atlantic.
“After I got used to it, it was a great experience.”
She credits three undergraduate internships — one at the National Space Science and Technology Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and two with the U.S. Geological Survey — as important steps toward her eventual career as a scientist.
After college, she received a NOAA fellowship to work on her Master’s degree in meteorology at the picture-perfect University of Hawaii at Manoa. The atmosphere on campus was so laidback, she recounts, that she and her peers took tests wearing their swimsuits under their street clothes — all the better for maximizing their ocean time after class.
Part of the fellowship involved training at the National Climatic Data Center, which led to the position she’s held since 2007. Her job duties center on analyzing global climate data, then creating products (including the map pictured with this article) that present information about the earth’s climate in a user-friendly way. As part of her work for the past several years, she’s contributed to an annual global climate report produced by the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency that focuses on weather, climate, and water resources.
This year, she’ll serve as the scientific coordinator for the report, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, for two three-week stretches in November and January to work on the project.
The document draws on the contributions of scientists from around the world to summarize the state of the global climate for the past year. It’s a privilege, says Sánchez-Lugo, to be able to work with people from across the planet at such a high level.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she admits.
Another international collaboration lies on the horizon as well. She traveled to Busan, South Korea, in June to begin working with other scientists on a project that will both summarize the global state of the climate as well as predict world weather patterns for the next three months.
Though her work takes her across the globe, Sánchez-Lugo enjoys being at home in WNC with her husband, Miguel Cruz-Quiñones, and their dachshund, Luna. The Fletcher resident stays involved in the community. In July, she began a three-year term on the board of directors for the YWCA of Asheville. “I think their mission is amazing — ‘eliminating racism and empowering women,’” Sánchez-Lugo remarks.
VERVE interviewed the scientist a couple weeks before Hurricane Isaac pummeled the Gulf Coast, swamping homes in coastal Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, with up to 14 feet of floodwater — and on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, no less. With clear-eyed determination, she was already thinking about how to someday channel her childhood passion for meteorology, sharpened by her professional skills, to help people better prepare for hurricanes — especially in the region where her roots are.
“I just want to be able to work eventually on the problems in the Caribbean and try to provide information that will be used for people … to make the right decisions,” says Sánchez-Lugo.
“There’s so much I want to do.”
For more information on the Climate Monitoring Branch of the NOAA, visit www.ncdc.noaa.gov/climate-monitoring