Research the role of astronomy in the global climate crisis

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In July 2019, 3 astrophysicists published the article Embedding Climate Change Engagement in Astronomy Education and Research (“Incorporating involvement with climate change in education and research in astronomy”), echoing the concerns of the scientific community about the impact of climate change on your research field. And it has already shown itself to be extensive.

Three studies, drawn from the special Astronomy for Future session of the European Astronomical Society’s 2020 virtual conference, published almost simultaneously in the journal Nature, show how astronomy and astrophysics are being affected by the climate crisis and, at the same time, contributing so that it gets worse.

Fostering the crisis

In 2 of the 3 articles published in Nature, the researchers detailed their own contribution to the increase in the climate crisis. At the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), it was discovered that only in 2018 did the institute’s researchers throw 18 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, just in research activities (almost twice the average emissions per person in Germany).

“We are responsible for the emission of pollutants, even if the reduction is not a matter of personal choice. Therefore, we need to analyze where they originate from and then find out how to act so that they are reduced,” the astronomer said in a statement. Knud Jahnke, co-author of the study.

In studies in which the scientific community does its mea-culpa, there is a list of recommendations. One of the most obvious is to exchange face-to-face conferences for online meetings (which is already happening, due to the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus), since the institute’s biggest carbon footprint is that left by its researchers’ transatlantic flights for conferences or visits to observatories in the Americas.

Mistral, a German supercomputer that needs continuous cooling, runs complex experiments with numerical models of the climate system.
Mistral, a German supercomputer that needs continuous cooling, runs complex experiments with numerical models of the climate system.

Another idea is to install supercomputers in places like Iceland – a country with low temperatures (which reduces the need for cooling) and an abundance of renewable energy.

Affected by the crisis

In addition to self-criticism, the community of astronomers also points out how changes in climate are negatively affecting the quality of observations, in an inversely proportional relationship – examples abound. One of the articles speaks specifically of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (or ESO), the most advanced visible light astronomical observatory in the world.

Even though Atacama is one of the driest areas on the planet, the low humidity already indicates that it should not remain that way for a long time because of changes in El Niño (a phenomenon that significantly modifies the heat distribution on the surface of the Pacific Ocean water, leading to changes in climate).

The VLT’s cooling system is no longer able to maintain the dome temperature below 16 ° C at night.
The VLT’s cooling system is no longer able to maintain the dome temperature below 16 ° C at night.

In addition, the average temperature of the place is increasing – 1.5 ° C in the last 40 years. The VLT is cooled during the day to protect it from degradation, but it is at night that the biggest problem arises. When the thermometer registers more than 16 ° C at sunset, the moment the dome is opened, the system is no longer able to achieve optimal cooling. The result: unclear observations.

“As astronomers and with a unique perspective on the universe, it is our responsibility to disclose the disastrous consequences of man-made climate change on our planet and in our society,” said MPIA researcher Faustine Cantalloube, lead author of one of the new studies.


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