How does global warming affect astronomical observations

VLT Laser Guide Star: A laser beam fired from the 8.2-meter Yepun Telescope (VLT) crosses the majestic southern sky and creates an artificial star 90 km high in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT adaptive optics system and is used as a reference to correct images from the effect of atmospheric blur. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl (atacamaphoto.com)

The exact quality of terrestrial astronomical observations depends on the clarity of the atmosphere above the location from which they were made. Therefore, the locations of the telescopes are chosen very carefully. They are often high above sea level, so the atmosphere stands between them and their targets. Many telescopes are also built in deserts, where clouds and even water vapor impede a clear view of the night sky.

A team of researchers led by the University of Bern and the National Center for Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS demonstrated in a study published in the journal Astronomy and astrophysics I showed at the Europlanet Science 2022 conference in Granada, how one of the major challenges of our time –anthropogenic climate change– Yet it affects our view of the universe.

Blind spot in the selection process

“Although telescopes usually have a lifespan of several decades, site selection processes only take into account Weather within a short period of time. Usually over the past five years – too short to pick up on long-term trends, let alone the future changes they cause Global WarmingCaroline Haslebacher, lead author of the study and a researcher at NCCR PlanetS at the University of Bern.

So the team of researchers from the University of Bern, NCCR PlanetS, ETH Zurich, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) as well as the University of Reading in the UK have taken it upon themselves to show the long-term perspective.

Deteriorating situation around the world

Their analysis of future climate trends, based on high-resolution global climate models, shows that major astronomical observatories from Hawaii to the Canary Islands, Chile, Mexico, South Africa and Australia will likely see an increase in temperature and water content in the atmosphere by 2050. This, in turn, could It means a loss of time control as well as a loss of quality in feedback.

“At present, astronomical observatories are designed to operate under current site conditions and have only a few possibilities for adaptation. The potential consequences of telescopes’ climatic conditions therefore include greater risks of condensation due to increased dew point or faulty cooling systems, which could lead to more of atmospheric turbulence in the telescope’s dome,” says Haslibacher.

The fact that the effects of climate change on observatories had not been taken into account before was not an oversight, says study co-author Mary Estelle Demore, but rather because of modeling limitations. “This is the first time that such a study can be done. Thanks to the high accuracy of Global Climate Models Developed by the Horizon 2020 Primavera project, we were able to examine conditions in different locations of the world with great accuracy – something we couldn’t do with conventional models. These models are valuable tools for the work we do at the Wyss Academy,” says the chief scientist at the University of Bern and a member of the Wyss Academy of Nature.

“This now allows us to say with certainty that anthropogenic climate change must be taken into account in site selection for next-generation telescopes, and in the construction and maintenance of astronomical facilities,” Haslibacher says.


Long-range liquid water also on non-Earth-like planets?


more information:
C. Haslebacher et al., Impact of climate change on site characteristics for eight major astronomical observatories using high-resolution global climate forecasts to 2050. The projected increase in temperature and humidity leads to poor astronomical observing conditions, Astronomy and astrophysics (2022). DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202142493

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