Report from 2050: Cloudy Skies Frustrate Stargazers

Most ground-based telescopes declared "worthless"

[Note: This was originally published on 13.7 Billion Years as part of "Reports from 2050," a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, based on current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

by Reynard Loki, 13.7 Billion Years

JANUARY 7, 2050 (Kagawa, Japan) -- Over forty years ago, in 2006, science correspondent Paul Rincon of the BBC News reported that telescopes might be worthless in 2050, due to an increase in aircraft exhaust pollution and climate change.

"Climate change is...expected to increase the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere through evaporation, contributing to overall cloudiness," Rincon wrote. "The increase in cloud cover would affect both optical and infrared astronomy, which would have to be carried out from space."

"You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy," said astronomer Gerry Gilmore of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University in the article. "You can't do both."

Well, suffice it to say, at least we still have trips to Majorca, though they're not all that cheap.

"It is already clear that the lifetime of large ground-based telescopes is finite and is set by global warming," Gilmore said. "There are two factors. Climate change is increasing the amount of cloud cover globally. The second factor is cheap air travel.

According to a 2009 article in the Guardian, the UK advisory committee on climate change warned that "without steps to stop growth in aviation emissions, planes could account for as much as a fifth of all CO2 produced worldwide by 2050."

That prediction was close -- currently, aircraft contribute a sixth of man-made global carbon emissions. One reason that the emission percentage isn't higher is the fact that air travel today is actually more expensive than Professor Gilmore estimated.

In 2030, member states of the United Nations agreed to an international mandate that airlines must pay for their carbon emissions. As a result, air ticket prices worldwide have doubled, forcing down the total number of commercial flights.

But even though this scheme has been in place for 20 years, aircraft pollution has still contributed greatly to the opacity of the sky. To make matters worse, cloud feedback -- increased atmospheric warming from clouds trapping more surface heat -- is responsible for a significant portion of global warming during the last 50 years.

"It's a vicious cycle, warmer temperatures mean clouds trap more heat, which in turn leads to even more warming," said atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, in a 2010 ScienceDaily article.

There are few places on Earth that are not affected by increased cloud cover and air pollution, and astronomers have been relocating to two of them -- the poles.

"We are in the process of moving our telescope to the Arctic Circle to take advantage of clearer skies because it is virtually useless where we are now," said Professor Kimiyo Hoshi of the Large Photonic Telescope in Kagawa, Japan. "But I don't know if we'll be able to afford the airfare to get it there."

It seems that the future of ground-based astronomy is as murky as the world's skies.

image: Albert Einstein and the staff of Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, in front of a 40-inch refractor telescope (credit: Yerkes Observatory)

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