ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ahira Sanchez-Lugo loved hurricanes.

There were so many excellent aspects — school was closed, she got to hang out with her friends, and even when there was some damage or power outages, she enjoyed the community spirit of neighbors pitching in to help.

"I always loved weather. Every time there was a thunderstorm, I had an attraction toward it. I thought hurricanes were fun. I was young. I was always safe. I never thought about people being in danger, losing their homes," said Sanchez-Lugo, a climate scientist with NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

"I loved hearing the power of the wind, the rain and I loved tracking the storms. I knew I had this love affair with hurricanes."

That was until 1998, when Category 2 Hurricane Georges struck a path of destruction across the island and destroyed some of her family members' homes. It was the most powerful hurricane that Sanchez-Lugo, now 36, had lived through.

But the seeds were planted, the love of nature's forces grew and evolved and eventually led Sanchez-Lugo to become one of the nation's top scientists studying climate change — including the increasing intensity of storms and hurricanes — at the nation's hub of climate science at NOAA's NECI, headquartered in the downtown Federal Building.

Though it all seemed like a natural trajectory for Sanchez-Lugo, (who's first name is roughly pronounced as "Ira") the outdoor, environmental and science-related fields are still not well represented by Hispanics, and even less so by Hispanic women.

Sanchez-Lugo said that out of the 153 NCEI federal employees (there are a total of 448 including contractors), with 128 federal employees in Asheville and others at offices in Colorado, Mississippi and Maryland, there are only four Hispanic federal employees.

She is the only female Hispanic federal employee working for NCEI.

Sanchez-Lugo said she would like to see those numbers improve, and whenever she gets the chance, she talks to students and young people about the intrigue of the environmental field, the potential for a high-paying career, and the many ways in which Hispanic Americans contribute to their communities.

Hispanic Heritage Month is observed in the United States from Sept. 15-Oct. 15. It was first authorized by Congress as a week in 1968 to recognize the rich culture and contributions of Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking nations. Twenty years later, it was expanded to a month-long celebration.

It starts on Sept. 15, which marks the anniversary of independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico's independence from Spain is Sept. 16.

According to the census, the United States is home to 59 million Hispanic people, who can be of any race. Hispanics constitute 18.3% of the nation's total population, making them the country's largest ethnic or racial minority.

Mentoring and internships are key

Sanchez-Lugo grew up in Aguadilla, in the northwest section of Puerto Rico. She said her parents were entrepreneurs and ran different businesses, including an ice cream shop and a skating rink, "which I loved," she said. They encouraged Sanchez-Lugo and her three siblings in all of their interests and pursuits.

In Puerto Rico, high school is three years, but there was a special, boarding high school in which students had to apply to get in, and accelerated studies that allowed students to graduate in two years. Sanchez-Lugo was accepted, and it's there she said she discovered the study of meteorology and decided that would be her life's path.

"I think I envisioned being in the National Weather Service, forecasting what would happen in the next few days, and being where hurricanes are and storm chasing," she said.

She also fell in love with physics, largely due to her teacher.

"She really made it fun. She would tell you about the theory, but put it into practice as well. We would build cars and compete," she said.

While Sanchez-Lugo wanted to study meteorology in college, there was no university in Puerto Rico at the time that offered it, and she didn't want to go to the mainland and leave her family at age 16. So she earned a bachelor's degree in physics, instead, at University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.

After graduating, she was ready to leave home and flew from the Atlantic to the Pacific, getting her master's degree in meteorology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

While in Hawaii, she earned an NOAA scholarship, giving her a paid internship in Asheville at what was formerly known as the National Climatic Data Center (now the NCEI).

The NOAA scholarship paid her tuition at UHM and housing during her internship in Asheville.

"While doing my internship, I decided I actually like this. When I talk to students, I always encourage students to do internships to get experience and network with other scientists," she said.

"I would never have imagined doing what I do now, but I enjoy it. I love it."

She was offered a job in the same office right after graduation and has been working in the mountains since 2007, now married and the mom to two boys, ages 3 and 6.

She said the salary range for her job is $55,000-$95,000, another enticement for getting into the climate field.

What does a climate scientist do?

While Sanchez-Lugo does get to travel the world on occasion for her job, much of her time is spent at a computer, analyzing and compiling data.

Different organizations that constantly record weather data, such as temperature and precipitation, including the National Weather Service, send it to the NCEI.

"It all gets submitted here so we can archive it, but we also use the data to analyze it to understand how our climate nationally and globally is changing," she said.

Every month she creates maps and authors the Global Climate Reports, putting the information into historical perspective.

While other scientists look at local, state and national changes, Sanchez-Lugo focuses on the global scale.

While she said this monthly report is written for the average, non-scientific audience, another of her responsibilities is to write a very technical report with some 500 authors from around the world, called the BAMS (Bulletin of American Meteorological Society) State of the Climate Report.

She describes it as the Earth's health assessment, sort of like going to the doctor to have your heart, ears, eyes, cholesterol, iron levels, etc., checked, every year.

"We do this on a yearly basis. We are constantly taking Earth's vitals and write how the earth's health was for the most recent and complete calendar year and how it compares with previous years."

Sanchez-Lugo said the report uses different data sets, including those from NASA, the United Kingdom and the Japan Meteorological Agency, to use and compare. They might come up with different figures — for instance, some data sets say 2018 was the third warmest year on record, some say it was the fourth warmest, but they all come to the same conclusion.

"The Earth's climate is warming. The average global temperature has increased by about 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880," she said. "However, the average rate of increase since 1950 is twice as great."

This points to the accelerated use of burning of fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas within the past 70 years.

"Using the doctor analogy again, I go to NOAA to get checked and they say I have a condition, and I don't like the decision, so I go to another doctor for a second opinion, which is a good idea. They run different tests but come up with the same condition. I go to a third doctor. They check you differently, but all come up with same conclusion," she said.

"We check different data sets, they all differ slightly, but they're all saying the same story."

Sanchez-Lugo said she is happy in her career, and also loves living in the mountains, where the outdoors are so accessible. She and her husband love spending time outdoors with their children at the North Carolina Arboretum riding bikes or hiking, or searching for bugs and exploring the woods at the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest.

"I'm happy in my career. It's not what I envisioned as a kid. But once I got in the field, I realized there is more than just storm chasing," Sanchez-Lugo said.

She would like to see more Hispanics, and more women, entering the field of climate science.

"Whenever I can, I do talk to young women about my experience. I think there is more male dominance in the field, but I think it's slowly improving," she said.

One idea she has is to create "Climate 101" videos with graphics understandable to all age levels, in Spanish language. She said she has been pushing the idea for a while but it is hard, considering she's the only one on staff who can do it.

"I feel there's not a lot of official climate information online in Spanish. There is a lot that's good, but you can also find a lot of bad information online as well," she said.

She remembers misinformation being spread in Spanish on social media after Hurricane Maria in September 2017 devastated the island, killing nearly 3,000 people.

"There was a fake story stating that NOAA was predicting a Category 6 or 7 hurricane to hit Puerto Rico. But there are no Category 6 or 7 hurricanes, and we can't predict a path even before a hurricane was formed. There were a lot of red flags, but people who don't know that, believe it. They are scared, it creates chaos. I want to do more official climate news in Spanish."

Sanchez-Lugo said growing up in a Spanish-speaking part of the country, Hispanic Heritage Month wasn't something celebrated, because everyone was Hispanic. But since moving to the mainland, she said she has been considering what the month does mean to her.

"I'm a proud Hispanic. I think we contribute in every part of society," she said.

"When I think of Hispanic Heritage Month, I think of the celebration of our culture, our values and traditions. It is a time to highlight the contributions of our Hispanic community locally and across the nation."

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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