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Looking Into the Skies to Understand Climate Change


Two astronomers at the University of Hawaii study the solar system to understand the climate crisis on earth. The study might help scientists slow down warming.

Professor John Tonry and Ari Heinz

John Tonry (left) and Ari Heinz at University of Hawaii, Institute of Astronomy
John Tonry (left) and Ari Heinz at University of Hawaii, Institute of Astronomy

Professor John Tonry is the lead of the NASA-funded ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) project. The project is often referred to as the "Earth's Last Defence." He is working alongside Ari Heinz. The study is expected to play a critical role in the global discussion about climate change and can contribute a lot to some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, under the Agenda 2030.

Their Work

John Tonry told the UN News agency along with the International Labour Organisation that their job is to track asteroid that might be hazardous to our planet. They calculate if and when they will hit Earth. They have the technology to anticipate these events and measure them systematically. He also added that the chances of the earth getting hit by an asteroid in the next year are very small, but talking about the century, there might be some events that can take place and some can even cause deaths. The asteroid hitting event has a low probability but is considered a very high consequence event.

Ari Heinz added that most of their surveys focus on large asteroids, and they can see them decades or even centuries before they hit Earth. But ATLAS focuses on smaller asteroids, which may not cause global devastation, but have the potential to destroy a city. These asteroids are very small that they can only be detected when they are close to Earth. If ATLAS spots such an asteroid, the first thing the team will do is to alert the people living in the particular area to evacuate the place, so that casualties are least, as the collision of the asteroid with Earth may cause a massive explosion.

John added to this saying two decades ago, it was not possible to purchase the computers we use today, as they were extremely expensive. The cameras and telescopes too were not advanced enough to spot what they spot today.

Astronomy and Climate Change

John explained that astronomy can be very helpful in understanding climate change. The sun goes through century-long cycles. And the star is extremely important for us. The way sun behaves can give insights into weather patterns. A lot can be learned from other planets in the solar system as well, where climate change went seriously wrong. Venus was driven to extreme heat by its atmosphere. Mars went to extreme cold. Hence planetary atmosphere can help generate the data which will help us in better understanding the climate crisis.

Ari said that future development of telescopes and new space missions are possible. There are areas in space which is yet to be explored by humans. There is a misunderstanding among the people about whether climate change is happening, to which Ari replied, "Yes, and that's what I told my students 30 years ago. The only questions are really, how severe it will be, and how much it will cost to put right. The most important thing for the human race right now is that we absolutely need to deal with it. I think astronomers understand all of this very clearly, and we can also explain it pretty clearly."

Data: UN

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