Featured C+Ser: Edil Sepulveda Carlo

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year, it didn’t just hit home for Edil Sepulveda Carlo (C+S ’13) who hails from the island. It hit right at the heart of why he came to Climate and Society. An island racked by years of poor decision making and an unreliable grid was plunged into darkness by one of the fiercest storms of the 2017 hurricane season—a season made more intense by climate change.

Sepulveda Carlo presenting a poster at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting.

In the wake of the storm, Sepulveda Carlo has embodied what C+S is all about. By day, he has helped with an award-winning program as a staff research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. And by night (and sometimes by day for that matter), he has worked tirelessly to bring the Puerto Rican diaspora on the mainland together to push and advocate for their home island, including ensuring that it’s more climate-resilient before the next storm hits.

Sepulveda Carlo found his way to C+S five years ago in search of a degree that would help him understand the climate system better and tie together what he already knew from studying law and environmental science. The goal: To connect the wealth of science out there with policymakers.

“Columbia University is well known for combining earth sciences with social science and policy and I knew the program was the right fit for me,” he said.

After graduating, Sepulveda Carlo landed a job with NASA at its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. His work has largely focused on helping with greenhouse gas monitoring programs using satellites. The emissions estimates derived from space are a crucial tool for understanding if nations, states and cities are meeting their commitments to mitigate climate change.

But the 2017 hurricane season was a reminder that society needs to twin its mitigation efforts with adaptation to the changes already occurring. That reality was no more stark than in Puerto Rico, which saw nearly its entire grid destroyed after a glancing blow from Hurricane Irma followed by Maria’s direct hit. That unleashed a cascading public health crisis that we’re still learning about more than a year after the storm.

In the immediate aftermath, Sepulveda Carlo found a way to help at NASA by working with a team responsible for creating Black Marble imagery, the nighttime counterpart for the Blue Marble. Zooming in on Puerto Rico, the agency was able to track power outages from space.

“The team led by Miguel Roman develop the first-ever near-real-time monitoring of power outage-affected areas in Puerto Rico at neighborhood scales,” he said.

Sepulveda Carlo helped the effort by ground-truthing what satellites were seeing. And the team as a whole won the agency’s group achievement medal for its work on the humanitarian response for Maria. Sepulveda Carlo continues his work with the team, helping organize workshops and training as well as gathering more results that will help streamline responses to future blackouts. He also collaborates on a number of other satellite projects, including the recently-launched ICESat-2 that will monitor polar ice and a soil moisture monitoring mission to help track droughts.

Visiting Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico three weeks after Hurricane Maria. Sepulveda Carlo (second from right) and his team met with its Casa Pueblo’s founder, 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, Alexis Massol González.

But Sepulveda Carlo isn’t just an eye in the sky kinda person. He’s also about connecting people directly. And despite the globe-spanning work at NASA, he’s found countless hours to bring together Puerto Rican professionals on the mainland to advocate for the island. The goal of the group, Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, is in Sepulveda Carlo’s words, “helping support self-reliant and resilience efforts in communities throughout the island.” 

They’ve helped raise funds for Casa Pueblo, a sustainable development and environmental justice group on the island, and thrown their voices behind Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) so-called Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico that would stimulate sustainable redevelopment with a massive influx of federal funds. They’re also organizing a summit later this month to continue using the diaspora’s collective voice and connections to push for a just rebuilding process.

As we move forward, the new generation of scientists has to be more aware of the social impacts of science and technology, and get involved and contribute positively to solving the most pressing human problems,” he said. 

And it’s pretty clear Sepulveda Carlo leading by example.

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