How our view of the universe can slowly fade away

Tony Santana Ross is an asteroid hunter.

At nightfall, after his final sightings of fiery clouds and flamingo sunlight fade to black, he gazes up into the sky to watch space rocks swim along the gravitational tides of our solar system. Sometimes he sees shards sailing casually by the Earth, gently greeting the telescopes with a “hello,” never to be observed again.

Occasionally, one of them would fish in a crash course with the Fluffy Blue Orb.

Last year, Santana Ross, a planetary scientist at the University of Alicante in Spain, was catapulted into action when astronomers realized an asteroid named 2022 WJ1 was heading right for the Canada-US border. With only four hours left on the clock, he rallied his team to help determine the threat of this asteroid.

What cities might threaten? Will it be like Chicxulub killing dinosaurs or just making a “tumbling” sound before plunging into a powerful body of water? “Fortunately, the object was small and just produced an amazing fireball,” he concluded.

But what if such a warning of time-sensitive asteroids was sent back in November of 2020, when the Santana Ross telescopes were shut down because wildfires ravaged the area and covered the lenses with ink layers of ash? Or in February of 2021, when wildfire debris made its way into some of the telescopes, forcing astronomers to disassemble the instruments and siphon blobs of soot out of them after the winds settled?

“Climate change is already affecting astronomy and my work,” said Santana Ross.

Studies have shown time and again that climate change leads to an increase in the incidence and intensity of wildfires over the years. With the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, some models predict that the risk of very large wildfires in the United States will increase sixfold by mid-century.

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Santana Ross said that as his telescope was shut down, he got the news of the outage from the comfort of home. “There was no big drama.”

But those fires kept his team from using the telescopes for a few weeks.

“The bottom line here is that we were lucky this time and we just missed a few regular notes,” he said. “Next time, we might face a real threat.”

astronomical problem

Over the past few decades, climate change has altered our relationship with the Earth.

Global industries still burn coal to generate cheap energy, spreading dangerous fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere, forcing our planet to warm, and ultimately fueling destruction like Forest fires In charge of the Santana Ross Research District. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to learn how to shelter endangered animals left without homes because deforestation has destroyed wildlife habitats, as well as how to deal with hurricanes that rip apart coastal villages.

It is as if we are not part of our own planet anymore, no longer blending into its environment like the oak trees and butterflies with whom we share cosmic material. It is as if we are struggling to regain our rightful place as earthlings.

But amid the chaos, astronomers are beginning to ponder another heartbreaking angle to the crisis. Not only has our relationship with Earth evolved, but climate change may pollute our relationship with the rest of the universe as well.

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As global warming ramps up, Earth-based telescopes will find it harder to alert us about asteroids, show shimmering galaxies and glimpse the mysterious exoplanets that inhabit the rest of eternity–the wonders that unite us beneath the layers of our discord, as evidenced by the ubiquitous love we witnessed for the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA’s James Webb two Christmases ago.

TornadoesAnd FloodsAnd fires and Drought It became the norm in centers of astronomy such as Hawaii and New Mexico. Sites like Les Makes Observatory in Paris have been hit by severe storms at the same time Santana Ross had to battle bushfires near his instruments in Australia.

And it’s not just complete disasters that we have to worry about. It’s also the smaller stuff: changes in temperature, humidity, constant weather—elements that telescopes typically rely on to work in a peak shape.

A recent paper published last October in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics focuses on that crucial detail while outlining an ominous future for astronomy. Its authors explore the details of what climate change could do to eight major optical telescopes scattered around the world. Not just today, but by 2050.

They say: “Our results show that climate change will negatively affect the quality of astronomical observations, and lost time due to poor site conditions is likely to increase.”

Lost time, as in nights of questionable stars.

“My first reaction to the paper was ‘yikes’ — another frustrating consequence of climate change,” said Clara Souza Silva, a quantum astrophysicist at Bard University. “I hadn’t previously considered how this would affect future observations, but of course it makes perfect sense. Obviously, in the long list of tragedies that will come from global warming, this is very far down the list of concerns, but it’s troubling nonetheless.”

“Anecdotally,” she continued, “although she carefully noted the possibility of confirmation bias, “fellow observers have complained that there seem to be more and more nights lost to weather in recent years.”

Starlight barrier

Together with her advisors, Caroline Haslibacher, a doctoral student at the University of Bern in Switzerland and lead author of the recent study, realizes that no one has really looked at how climate change affects astronomical observations, although Santana Ross’ experiment is proof of that. The damage has already been done.

They moved quickly to fill the void.

The team modeled what would happen to the eight telescope subjects as the globe warmed, ultimately suggesting that we’ll see an increase in what’s known as specific humidity and rapid water vapor in the coming years.

Essentially, this means that the amount of water in the air will go up because of climate change—a problematic situation because airborne water tends to be absorbed by the same optical telescopes that are trying so hard to capture it.

“A lot of the most exciting astronomical observations are being made at the edge of instrumental capabilities,” Souza-Silva said. “Any additional noise directly limits the discoveries we can make.”

For example, the study authors predict that at the extinct volcano on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, where many observatories are located, there will be a 0.3 mm increase in water by 2050. Admittedly, such a miniature effect appeared to be very weak when compared with other sites. other. “But it’s still not zero,” said John O’Meara, chief scientist at Mauna Kea’s Keck Observatory.

With this paper in mind, he is particularly concerned about the increase in water vapor that does not affect visible light but rather
Infrared observations at the Hawaiian site. This haze is very likely to cause problems for this class of light, which is emitted from the distant universe.

As the wavelengths stretch as they move away from our planet, they get redder and redder with time until they turn into elusive infrared patterns – invisible to the human eye but analyzeable with advanced instruments. This is exactly the shape of light signals scientists love, the kind that can reveal to us what the universe was like when we first flicked it off.

It would be a shame if this rich level of cosmic history were to slowly fade away from our privileged position on Earth.

“The impacts of climate change have not historically been included in site selection studies, and now we have a new variable to consider,” O’Meara said.

For this reason, Haslebacher believes that moving forward, we must analyze trends when building telescopes.

“It is imperative that telescopes are under construction,” she said, “because it is possibleStill adapting their design to changing climatic conditions, telescopes are in planning so that site selection can be minimally affected.”

But even this effort may not be enough to offset the barriers this crisis will create. More water vapor simply reduces light transmission in some spectral bands. Or, as Souza Silva puts it, “We’ll literally have a little bit to look at.”

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Only space machines

Since the Industrial Revolution, it is as if humanity has been in a paradoxical thought loop regarding climate change—one that, predictably, has devolved into a political debate.

Last year, COP 27 marked the twenty-seventh year that world leaders met to discuss how to save the Earth — and another year that world scientists asserted that we were largely screwed.

“I must emphasize at this point that we considered the combined socioeconomic pathway scenario with the highest greenhouse gas emissions out of five possible pathways,” Haslibacher said of her paper. Unfortunately, we are following this scenario today.

In other words, the worst-case scenario is the one we’re currently living through.

Yet some policymakers and energy giants justify—and even encourage—this kind of human rebellion against the natural world because fossil fuels give us inexpensive power. And without affordable power, they worry, we’ll need to dip into other budgets as penance to keep our iPhone batteries a healthy green color.

But to preserve fossil-fuel-driven energy, we’re pushing in other ways.

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“We know what we need to do as a nation and a world to avoid the worst effects, yet we are vastly unprepared to act on the scale that the situation requires,” O’Meara said. “I’m afraid it will take the first really big catastrophe or conflict to wake us up, and by then, it may be too late to avert the next.”

Moreover, the same pollution that is warming the globe is bound to do things like thicken the atmosphere.

“The optically thicker atmosphere is one in which radiation is transmitted less,” said Luigi Vidal, Professor of Climate System Science and Climate Hazards at the University of Reading and co-author of the study. “Although the [our] Models considered the highest-case scenario for future emissions, we may have underestimated the impact of airborne pollution on local visibility.”

O’Meara put it simply: “More clouds means less visible objects equals less science.”

For example, global warming can deteriorate the overall atmospheric qualities of a telescope site, creating the right conditions for disturbances during observations. It could prevent scientists from cooling their machines to the correct checkpoints before embarking on a project — and truth be told, the concerns run deep enough to affect not just astronomy, but all of science.

“This is going to change our whole world,” said Santana Ross. “Climate change is very likely to be a source of future financial crises, which in turn will have a negative impact on research funding.”

Funding scientific projects is indeed quite a dilemma – most of the time, only those who win grants, prizes, fellowships, and other similar awards are able to continue their work for years on end.

To add to this, if we wait to act on climate change, and then something completely drastic happens, we will need to redirect resources from astronomy, medicine, chemistry, biology, botany, etc., to climate science.

“There is still time for science and industry to lead us to a better climate future,” O’Meara said. All we need is determination and investment.” It is becoming clear that without immediate action, the promise of ground-based telescopes may one day become a thing of the past—perishing along with all the other beautiful things they are tasked with protecting from the catastrophe they created.

At that point, the only link we’d have left to the stars would be our spaceborne instruments: the Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble — chunks of metal floating above the devastated Earth, witnessing humanity’s departure from the natural world.

“Plans to colonize other planets are still science fiction, and they will be for many decades,” said Santana Ross. “Our only option for survival is to mitigate climate change.”

All photos: Robert Rodriguez/CNET.

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