Astronomy

The climate crisis might change astronomy forever

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The world’s largest telescopes, which show us the deepest, farthest, oldest reaches of our universe, are located in places with little rain and few clouds.

And for decades, these telescopes have been changing our views of the cosmos.

But a familiar enemy, which affects all realms of life, has started creeping in on astronomers and their ability to see into deep space.

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Astronomers are starting to feel the effects of climate change, air pollution, and light pollution.

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Past wildfires in California threatened two different observatories: Mt. Wilson observatory and Lick Observatory, which narrowly escaped a fire.

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In Chile, average temperatures have risen 1.5 degrees celsius in the last 40 years. Telescopes need to be cool to operate, so rising temperatures threaten their very ability to function.

Air pollution has also affected astronomers around the world.

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Tiny particles in the air called aerosols, which result from cars, power plants, and factories burning fossil fuels, get in the way of light traveling from space to our telescopes.

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Scientists worry that the climate crisis will fundamentally change the weather conditions on the tops of mountains, where telescopes are traditionally built in the cool, dry air.

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"We have a unique perspective on the issue because we understand the finite nature of the Earth," says Travis Rector, an astronomer and chair of the sustainability committee at the American Astronomical Society.

And astronomers would know — they spend their lives observing other worlds. And so far, Earth is the only one we know of with life.

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"This is the only place that we have a chance of all of us surviving so we have to be mindful of how we’re changing the climate,” Rector says.

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Read a deeper dive into this story here.

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