Alyssa Hernandez glanced out the train window — somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland — and saw something she’d never seen. Hundreds of wind turbines covered a sprawling green field.
It was a breathtaking and poignant reminder of where Hernandez was headed — the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). It was also a symbol of where the world could be headed if everyone pulled together to find alternative sources of renewable energy.
The FIU alumna and program coordinator for the Sea Level Solutions Center in the Institute of Environment is a part of a collaborative team overseeing a citizen science program that helps inform local policy and decision-makers, as well as the local community. That program was in the running for the Climate Change Cup. This international competition celebrates civic research partnerships fighting climate change in the U.S. and U.K.
“I cried tears of joy when I found out I was going because this is the biggest thing that’s happened in my career,” Hernandez said. “It was my climate girl dream! My green soul was screaming for this — and to know that our team was a finalist in this international competition was just amazing and beyond words.”
After the Resilient 305 Strategy was created, FIU Director of Science for Sea Level Solutions Tiffany Troxler spearheaded the Resilient 305 Collaborative, a partnership between local universities and colleges, government and community-based organizations. Another partnership that’s tied to and supports this one is the Southeast Florida Citizen Science Climate Action Network — which includes two citizen science projects confronting South Florida’s biggest climate change challenges. Flooding and heat.
Sea Level Solutions Day collects critical flooding data during seasonal king tides. Volunteers are given a kit that includes a tape measure for water depth measurement, water sample bottles and more to collect data. Shading Dade has a similar approach — only for heat monitoring. Participants place special dime-sized sensors at different locations around South Florida, like bus stops, to capture temperature data over time. Both sets of data are then converted, and used to create maps and trends to inform adaptation efforts and policy interventions.
To date, more than 1,000 citizens and students have made over 300 flood observations and half a million temperature observations in Miami-Dade and Broward. Recently, the program has started expanding with some observations in Palm Beach and Monroe counties. The information has become an invaluable tool for government officials and partners.
“I want to emphasize how import our relationship is with our university partners. They have formed a collaborative that has helps us research in depth all the key issues around climate change, including how we can adapt to it long term,” Miami-Dade County’s Chief Resilience Officer Jim Murley said in a video supporting the program for the award.
Hernandez explored Scotland while she anxiously awaited the night of the awards ceremony. She stood on a hill by a castle looking at a mountain, listening to bagpipes carried on the wind. She discovered an old red telephone booth. She saw a wild swan gliding past fishing boats on a quiet channel. She drank tea and even tried haggis, a traditional Scottish dish.
During the sightseeing, though, her thoughts were never far from the conference. Her Uber driver mentioned how hot it was getting. On a walk in a park, Hernandez passed a poster designed by a child, where the earth was frowning and on fire.
On a quick stop to the corner store, she came across climate change-related quotes projected on Castle Rock. One, in particular stayed with her. “If not us, then who?”
That question became the perfect rallying cry the night of the Climate Change Cup ceremony. It was behind every single one of the finalists’ projects and initiatives.
Hernandez said she didn’t know if her team would win, only a feeling she’d stand on the stage. And she was right. The team was second place for the Climate Change Adaptation award.
Hernandez walked to the podium to accept the award, heart pounding. Lights shined in her eyes. She couldn’t see the audience in the room, but knew they were watching — along with so many others tuned into the livestream. Scrapping her planned remarks, she spoke from the heart and thanked the people who made the projects a success — the volunteers, the citizen scientists.
“What’s special about our approach is that we make it engaging, so people feel like they’re part of the solution,” Hernandez said. “We’re here to educate and engage.”
The resounding message of COP26 was of unity, collective action. She calls the experience “igniting,” because she got to meet many passionate people trying to solve the climate change puzzle together, and in many different ways.
It was an experience that buoyed her spirits, giving her a more powerful sense of purpose. Now, she’s ready to get back out into the community and continue working.
Her greatest hope is this win that received recognition at the international level can be a message to the community about what FIU is trying to do for the good of the planet — and hopefully encourage the community to participate.
“You have to find a part of the climate crisis that speaks to you — is it the fact your beaches are eroding or that you want to visit the rainforest but it might not be there one day,” Hernandez said. “If you think climate change is a major issue, then there are ways to contribute. There’s resources available, a chance to be a part of the solution.”