How Global Warming Affects Astronomical Observations

How Global Warming Affects Astronomical Observations

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

The quality of astronomical observations on the ground depends delicately on the clarity of the atmosphere above the place from which they are made. The sites for the telescopes are therefore very carefully selected. They are often above sea level, so there is less atmosphere between them and their targets. Many telescopes are also built in deserts, as 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 Research Center (NCCR) PlanetS shows in a study, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and presented at the Europlanet Science Congress 2022 in Granada, how one of the great challenges of our time, anthropogenic climate change, is now affecting even our view of the cosmos.

A blind spot in the selection process

“Even though telescopes typically have a lifespan of decades, site selection processes only consider atmospheric conditions over a short period of time. Usually, over the past five years, too short to capture trends at long term, not to mention future changes caused by global warming,” says Caroline Haslebacher, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Bern’s PRN PlanetS.

The team of researchers from the University of Bern and the PRN PlanetS, ETH Zurich, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) as well as the University of Reading in the United Kingdom therefore took on the task of showing the long-term perspective.

Worsening conditions worldwide

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 atmospheric water content by 2050. , in turn, could mean a loss of observation time as well as a loss of quality in observations.

“Today, astronomical observatories are designed to operate under current site conditions and have little scope for adaptation. The potential consequences of climatic conditions for telescopes therefore include a higher risk of condensation due to ‘a high dew point or faulty cooling systems, which can lead to more turbulence in the telescope dome,’ says Haslebacher.

The fact that the effects of climate change on observatories had not previously been taken into account was not an oversight, as study co-author Marie-Estelle Demory puts it, but rather because of the limitations of modeling. “This is the first time that such a study has been possible. Thanks to the higher resolution of the global climate models developed within the framework of the Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, we were able to examine the conditions in various places on the globe with high fidelity. – something we weren’t able to do with conventional models. These models are valuable tools for the work we do at the Wyss Academy,” says the senior scientist from the University of Bern and member of the Wyss Academy for Nature.

“This now allows us to say with certainty that anthropogenic climate change must be considered in site selection for next-generation telescopes, as well as in the construction and maintenance of astronomical facilities,” Haslebacher said.

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

More information:
C. Haslebacher et al, Impact of climate change on the site characteristics of eight major astronomical observatories using high-resolution global climate projections to 2050. Projected increases in temperature and humidity lead to poorer conditions for astronomical observation, Astronomy & Astrophysics (2022). DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202142493

Provided by the University of Bern

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