The quality of astronomical observations from the ground directly depends on the clarity of the atmosphere above the place from which they are made. Therefore, the locations of the telescopes are selected very carefully.
Often they are at a high altitude above sea level so that there is less atmosphere between them and their targets. Also, many telescopes are built in deserts because clouds and even water vapor prevent a clear view of the night sky.
A team of researchers led by the University of Bern and the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS shows in a study, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysicshow one of the major challenges of our time – climate change – is now affecting even our view of the Cosmos.
“Even though telescopes typically have a lifespan of several decades, site selection processes only consider atmospheric conditions over a short period of time. Typically over the past five years – too short a period to capture long-term trends, let alone future changes caused by global warming,” points out Caroline Haslebacher, lead author of the study and NCCR PlanetS researcher at the University from Bern, he writes EurekAlert.
How might astronomical observations change by 2050?
Therefore, the team of researchers from the University of Bern and NCCR PlanetS, ETH Zurich, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), as well as the University of Reading in the UK, took on the task of showing the long-term perspective.
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, are likely to experience an increase in temperature and water from the atmosphere by 2050.
This in turn could mean a loss of observing time as well as a loss of quality of observations.
How might astronomical observatories adapt to climate change?
“Currently, astronomical observatories are designed to work in the current conditions of the place and have only a few possibilities of adaptation. Therefore, among the potential consequences of climatic conditions for telescopes is a higher risk of condensation due to increased dew point or malfunctioning cooling systems, which can lead to more air turbulence in the telescope dome,” says Haslebacher.
The fact that the effects of climate change on observatories have not been taken into account until now was not an oversight, says Marie-Estelle Demory, co-author of the study, but was due not least to the current state of technology.
“This now allows us to say with certainty that climate change must be taken into account in the selection of sites for next-generation telescopes, as well as in the construction and maintenance of astronomical facilities,” says Haslebacher.