As wildfires become more extreme, observatories are at greater risk

it was 4 On June 17, Michelle Edwards, Associate Director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, received the news: Wildfire had destroyed the road to the telescopes. She felt a little scared, even though she had already spent several long days coordinating the observatory’s protection plan and turning her office into a command center for a firefighting operation. “I don’t think you ever really expect that call,” says Edwards.

The Contreras wildfire was started six days earlier by a lightning strike on Tohono O’odham Nation land in Arizona, a few miles southeast of the summit that Kitt Peak sits on. Winds and dry vegetation quickly drove the flames to burn 500 acres, prompting Edwards to initiate an evacuation of nonessential personnel when a fire crew arrived at the site a few days later. Then they prepared for the worst: firefighters cleared undergrowth and distributed flame retardants. Teams of key personnel visited each of Kitt Peak’s 23 telescopes, uncapping domes and shutting down electronics.

On June 17, the fire blazed up to many telescopes on the southwest ridge of the summit, destroying a cabin, dormitory, and tool shed. The blaze damaged at least 18 utility poles and wiped out power and data service, meaning the observatory won’t be able to resume science until the end of August at the earliest. “Unfortunately, Arizona is becoming a hotbed for wildfires,” says Edwards. “And we’ve seen effects of fire at Kitt Peak before, although nothing as bad as here.”

Kitt Peak isn’t the first observatory to face threats as climate change exacerbates the severity of wildfires. Other research areas that rely on access to glaciers, snow, and remote weather stations face similar warming-related challenges. “This is just another example of how many important human endeavors are at risk,” said Adrienne Cool of San Francisco State University, co-founder of a global nonprofit called Astronomers for Planet Earth, or A4E.

In 2011, a massive wildfire endangered the McDonald Observatory in Texas. A bushfire swept through Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in 2013. Two years ago, California’s Lick Observatory narrowly escaped destruction, although the blaze caused nearly $8 million worth of damage to surrounding homes and destroyed a nearby amateur observatory. A month later, Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles had close contact with a wildfire raging just a few hundred feet from the site.

Deciding where to build an observatory is strategic: astronomers choose locations with reliably good weather, stable atmospheres, and clear skies — like mountains — so telescopes will be functional for decades to come. (Lick, the world’s oldest mountain observatory, has been in operation since 1888; Kitt Peak’s first domes were built nearly 70 years ago.) “We build our telescopes in the sun and in dry locations,” says A4E founding member Travis Rector, an astronomer at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “And those are perfect conditions for wildfires.”

Fires aren’t the only natural disaster threatening observatories. Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. (It was further damaged by a snapped cable in 2020 and collapsed a few months later.) The Atacama Desert — one of the best places on earth to set up a telescope, according to Rector, due to its historical lack of rain — now endures regular storms and floods. Last month, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile was shut down due to one of the region’s biggest snowstorms ever. It’s not that extreme weather hasn’t happened before, Rector says, but climate change is making it more frequent and intense. Research itself is also affected: with increasing temperatures, the image quality of the telescopes deteriorates.

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