The space toy currently propelling Miguel Román’s career doesn’t sound like a partner in cutting-edge research on how humans are interacting with Earth to cause global warming: the Visible Infrared Imager Radio-meter Suite, a camera of sorts sitting on a satellite orbiting 511 miles above the planet.
But the sensor aboard NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite is measuring forest fires, hurricanes, the size of leaves on trees and other changes that tell us Earth is warming, with dazzling imagery and equally dazzling precision.
And Román, a young earth-systems scientist with a knack for turning complex pixels into data, is leading the effort to make sure what’s photographed in space is translated accurately for fire managers, weather forecasters, governments and researchers.
“We’re studying where we live,” he said, walking down a corridor in the Terrestrial Information Systems Laboratory, otherwise known as Code 619, in Building 32 at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
“It’s not just square pixels and signals,” Román said. “It’s our natural system and how humans are interacting with it.”
He is one in a new generation of climate scientists who are using increasingly sophisticated satellites the size of yellow school buses to track not just weather but rising sea levels, melting ice and snow, fires and drought, and other evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are producing wide-ranging changes in global weather patterns.
Román is just 33. But the affable Puerto Rico-born researcher, whose speciality is remote sensing, is one of 33 individuals and teams of federal employees nominated for the 13th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, among the highest honors in government.
He is one of five finalists for a “Call to Service” award, which recognizes the achievements of young public servants. The medals will be announced in September by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
His colleagues at NASA, in nominating him, cited data on wildfires that was so timely and accurate it has helped emergency responders position equipment and people faster than ever. They also spotlighted his research interpreting images of nighttime lights in 2,000 cities to understand global energy use.
“At the end of the day, our Number One priority is to process the data and turn it into scientifically valid information in a useful format,” Román said. “Our fire managers can’t wait four or five hours to learn what they’re facing. We’ve got it down to about 20 minutes.”
The fire monitoring system can map fires across the world that start under the forest canopy. In 2012, the technology allowed Román and his team to predict the contours of a worldwide drought that hit wheat crops in eastern Russia particularly hard.
Piers Sellers, a British astronaut who is now deputy director of NASA’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, calls Román a rare “super data jock” who is able to interpret complex and massive sets of data.
“The trouble is, there’s an increasing amount of data,” Sellers said. “That’s where people like Miguel come in.”
The data are free, downloaded by governments and research institutions worldwide, with at least three terabytes shipped every day. For perspective, the entire holdings of the Library of Congress make up one terabyte.
When NASA launched the first weather satellite in 1960, it was little more than two television cameras strapped to a satellite and shot into orbit. A new generation arrived in 1999, when Román was in high school in the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan. The current squadron of about 27 missions has better sensors and cameras and longer life spans, including Suomi NPP, which launched in 2011 as a joint project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The VIIRS sensor scans a swath of Earth at a time, about 1,900 miles across, using a telescope that measures the difference between the light coming down to the planet’s surface from the sun and the light reflected back to the telescope. It takes about a day to scan the entire planet.
“Miguel plays a lead role [in the research] even though he’s quite young,” Crystal B. Schaaf, a professor of remote sensing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Román’s dissertation adviser, said of her former student.
“I’m incredibly proud of him. Now I’m working with him as a colleague.”
Raised by a single mother “and huge extended family” following the death of his father, a U.S. Army Green Beret originally from the Dominican Republic, on a training mission, Román studied to become an electrical engineer to follow an uncle who worked for the Puerto Rican phone company. It was either that or “make pills for Pfizer or work for Bacardi rum,” he said.
As a college sophomore at the University of Puerto Rico, he got a summer engineering internship at NASA through a program for promising college and graduate students. He was paired with an earth scientist. And he was hooked on space.
That summer, he also met his future wife, Julia Román-Duval, a French astrophysicist who supports NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope at Johns Hopkins University. “She looks up, I look down,” Román joked. They live in Columbia, Md., with their three children, ages 4, 2 and 1.
Román came to NASA in 2009 in a wave of 96 scientists hired with federal stimulus money. He had just finished his doctorate at Boston University in remote sensing.
In his own research, he is turning to urban policies and cultural forces that drive energy use, particularly of electricity. He is taking the nighttime images the Suomi satellite can collect to look at humans who turn on the lights at night. “But we’re not spying on you,” he chuckled.
The research is in its early stages. But so far data show that American electricity use spikes by about 20 percent during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. During Ramadan in Egypt’s Nile River Valley, it spikes at night in relatively secular neighborhoods, where Muslims start celebrating after daytime fasting. Heavily religious neighborhoods, though, show less energy use “because they fast and go to bed early,” Román said.
“It means that cultural context drives energy use,” he explained. Cities have different patterns of turning on the lights. “We’ve known it but never been able to measure it, let alone globally.”
The upshot is that cities can better estimate the timing of their peak energy use and even predict how much electricity they will use over two years, which can increase a city’s overall efficiency.
One of the challenges for climate scientists is working in a politically charged discipline where research is sometimes viewed with suspicion. As a result, they feel intense pressure to make sure their data are solid.
“We get a lot of people saying there are errors in our data,” Román said. “So we’ve come back five times to check on the accuracy. Our measurements drive the argument for what is true. The policymakers can take it from there.”