Earth Week x Astrobites 2022: Introducing our speakers!

Welcome to the first post for our first Earth Week at Astrobites! In today’s post, we introduce our speakers and supporters for Earth Week x Astrobites 2022 to compile a collection of directions one can take in contributing to climate change work. We prompted each to tell us briefly about their path and their work, specifically tying into our theme for 2022: how to use an astro/physics background to do climate advocacy work.

Travis Rector: astronomers’ perspectives on climate change

Travis Rector will be co-leading “Bringing Climate to the Classroom”: a talk and Q&A on Tues. 4/19 at 4 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

Dr. Travis Rector has been a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage for 19 years.  During that time he has seen Alaska change dramatically as the Arctic warms at 3x the rate of the rest of the world.  Dr. Rector started teaching climate change in response to questions from students who wanted to know what the future holds for our planet.  Questions like, “Would the Earth turn into Venus?”, “Are there other planets we can live on?”, and “What can we do about it?” made it clear that students were concerned and, in many cases, paralyzed by fear.  It became clear that as astronomers we have an important perspective on the issue of climate change, and we have a strong voice.  It has also become clear that astronomy is being affected by climate change, and that we are also unwitting contributors.  In recent years Dr. Rector has been the chair of the Sustainability Committee of the AAS and is now leading a Task Force to identify how we can reduce the carbon emissions associated with AAS activities.

Kathryn Williamson: including climate change in the curriculum

Kathryn Williamson will be co-leading “Bringing Climate to the Classroom”: a talk and Q&A on Tues. 4/19 at 4 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

Kathryn Williamson is a Teaching Associate Professor at West Virginia University. She engages in climate change teaching, learning, and outreach through a variety of professional channels. As the Director of the WVU Planetarium, she has purchased the “Dynamic Earth” full dome film and designed an accompanying “Climate Change from the Astronomical Perspective” presentation. As founder and steering committee member of the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team (SPOT), she led the design of a “Climate Change in the Mountain State” presentation, which has become the most popular presentation given by college ambassadors to schools throughout the state. With support by the WV Space Grant Consortium and WVU, she also co-founded the WV Climate Change Professional Development (WVCCPD) project in 2019, which offers workshops, networking events, and Continuing Education Units for teachers around the state to incorporate climate change into their curricula. The WVCCPD project also supports a “Public Service Announcement” competition, which airs student-produced climate-themed audio and video clips on news and radio stations in celebration of Earth Day. Additionally, Williamson led the WVU Climate Education Day at the WV State Capitol in February 2020 and produced the “WVU Climate Conversations” podcast with students in a 1-credit book club in 2019. Williamson is currently a co-chair of the Astronomers for Planet Earth Web Resources working group.

David Grinspoon: from Earth to Earth-like

David Grinspoon will be leading “Comparative Planetology as a Catalyst for Climate Conversation”: a workshop on Thurs. 4/21 at 2 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

I am a planetary scientist/astrobiologist with a focus on climate evolution of Earth-like planets. I’m interested in how planets gain and lose habitable conditions and what the limits of habitability might be. I also have long-standing interests in the intersections between Earth and space science with other cultural concerns, the history, ethics, policy, art and poetry of science. I have undergraduate degrees in Planetary Science and Philosophy of Science and a graduate degree in Planetary Science. My career path has been somewhat circuitous. I post-doc’d at a NASA lab, then was a professor at a research university. I was denied tenure in a process that was deeply flawed, unfair and painful. But it also turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing me to reset my career in ways that have proven deeply rewarding.

I was denied tenure because I had just published a popular book, something that “wasn’t scholarly” and, because it was aimed at the general public, was not considered a respectable use of a professor’s time. But that book “Venus Revealed” did well and got national attention – including as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, which opened some doors. It helped me get a contract for my next book, “Lonely Planets” which was more lucrative than the faculty job had been, and which when it was published won another big national writing award. Since then I’ve maintained a research program but spent roughly half my time on various science adjacent pursuits in outreach and education. For 6 years I was a curator at a major science museum, a position that was roughly half research and half outreach. In 2013 I became the Inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. There I studied human impacts on the Earth system in the context of astrobiology, convened a symposium on the Longevity of Civilizations, and wrote a book entitled “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future”. For the last few years I’ve been a soft money researcher at a nonprofit research corporation, and continued to write and speak and pursue other media projects. I’ve been involved in several interplanetary spacecraft missions and I’m currently a member of the science team for the DAVINCI mission which will launch to Venus in 2029. Much of my public communication involves applying comparative planetology to awareness of the climate emergency on Earth. I find that my general fluency with climate science gives me the confidence to knowledgeably engage in climate education and activism, and the fact that my research largely concerns climate on other planets sometimes gives me a novel way to enter into potentially challenging conversations from an unthreatening angle, finding points of common interest and agreement that can lead to new understanding in surprising ways.

Kirsten Hall: astrophysics and atmospheres

Kirsten Hall will be a panelist in our discussion “Astro/Physicists in Climate Work: Transferring Astro-skills to Climate Advocacy” on Fri. 4/22 at 11:30 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

Dr. Kirsten Hall is a Schmidt Science Fellow and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She is an interdisciplinary scientist with a current focus on atmospheric dynamics and climate change using remote sensing and reanalysis datasets. She is an astrophysicist by training, specializing in galaxy evolution and the large-scale structure of the Universe as observed by far-infrared, millimeter, and radio telescopes. She also holds expert knowledge of active, supermassive blackholes residing at the centers of galaxies. 

Dr. Hall got her start as an astrophysicist while working on her bachelor’s degree in Physics, with Astrophysics concentration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She obtained her PhD in Astrophysics from the Johns Hopkins University in 2020. Through the tremendous opportunity provided by the Schmidt Science Fellows, she pivoted her postdoctoral research into the field of Climate Science, with a focus in atmospheric dynamics in the Fall of 2020.

Sydney Chamberlin: gravitation to conservation

Sydney Chamberlin will be a panelist in our discussion “Astro/Physicists in Climate Work: Transferring Astro-skills to Climate Advocacy” on Fri. 4/22 at 11:30 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

I’ve always been a person with broad interests, and my career path really reflects that. I come from a family that loves astronomy – my parents actually met each other while working at a planetarium – and growing up, most of our family vacations involved traveling to remote parts of Utah where night skies are dark. So, it’s probably not surprising that I ended up studying math and physics and eventually, getting my PhD in gravitational-wave astronomy. After I finished my PhD and a postdoc, I realized that academic research wasn’t the right path for me. I was interested in policy, so I took a big leap of faith and jumped into a science policy fellowship in California. I spent a year working in the California Legislature, where I analyzed proposed legislation relating to natural resource management and climate change, and then moved into a role at The Nature Conservancy, where I think about ways we can accelerate and scale the use of nature-based climate solutions. It’s turned out to be a perfect fit in so many ways; all that time doing astronomy on remote public lands cemented my appreciation of conservation, and I am an avid nature-lover. In my job, I use science, communication, and project management skills to help ensure that nature has a seat at the table in advancing California climate policy.

Gabriele Betancourt-Martinez: scientist and science programmer

Gabriele Betancourt-Martinez will be a panelist in our discussion “Astro/Physicists in Climate Work: Transferring Astro-skills to Climate Advocacy” on Fri. 4/22 at 11:30 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

I have always had two loves: astronomy and nature. Astronomy ended up being what I focused on academically, but I often considered different career paths that would allow me to focus more on the climate crisis. In 2017, I completed a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Maryland. I performed my research at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, focusing on X-ray instrumentation and laboratory astrophysics. I then went on to do postdoctoral research with the Athena X-IFU team at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in Toulouse, France. While I was in France, I joined Astronomers for Planet Earth, an active online community of astronomy students, researchers, and educators who are committed to acting on the climate crisis. Through this group, I had the opportunity to learn more about the impact astronomy research has on the climate and ways to make a change. Towards the end of my postdoctoral position, I decided I was ready to pivot my career away from research. I was lucky enough to find a position in science philanthropy that allowed me to combine my passions for astronomy, the climate, and supporting and uplifting underrepresented groups in astronomy and physics. I am currently a Science Program Officer at the Heising-Simons Foundation. 

Tanya Harrison: on a mission for the planet

Tanya Harrison will be a panelist in our discussion “Astro/Physicists in Climate Work: Transferring Astro-skills to Climate Advocacy” on Fri. 4/22 at 11:30 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link).

Dr. Tanya Harrison is the Director of Strategic Science Initiatives at Planet. Before that, she worked in science and mission operations for multiple NASA Mars missions over the course of 13 years, including the Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance rovers. She holds a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Western Ontario, a Masters in Earth and Environmental Science from Wesleyan University, and a B.Sc. in Astronomy and Physics from the University of Washington. You can find her on Twitter as @tanyaofmars.

Colin Hill: the natural world from land to sky

Colin Hill will be a panelist in our discussion “Astro/Physicists in Climate Work: Transferring Astro-skills to Climate Advocacy” on Fri. 4/22 at 11:30 pm EDT (RSVP for Zoom link). 

I’ve always been drawn to nature, both life on Earth and how the universe works at a fundamental level. In recent years my interests have focused on climate change, both the impacts on people and the environment, and the adoption of nature-based solutions. Starting my career with an undergraduate degree in physics, I continued on the academic path with a PhD and postdoctoral position in astrophysics. After three and a half years as a postdoctoral researcher, I pivoted my career to the role of data scientist in a startup company, mainly focused on R&D for applications of weather forecasts and land surface models for agriculture. Two years later, I started my current position with a company that is transforming farming and food supply chains through adoption of regenerative agriculture. I work as technical lead for a sustainability insights product that enables food companies and NGOs to track adoption of regenerative practices, calculate reductions in emissions, and identify opportunities for more sustainable partnerships.

Anna Cabré: from cosmology to climate

Hi! I am Anna Cabré, a climate physicist and oceanographer with a background in astronomy and cosmology. 

I started my career as a physicist doing research on the large scale structure of the Universe, baryon acoustic oscillations, redshift distortions in Barcelona (PhD 2008) and moved to Philadelphia (UPenn) for a postdoc in weak lensing and modified gravity in the Dept of Physics and Astronomy, before leaving the field around 2012. I pursued this career because I really enjoyed maths and the night sky, and I wanted to be intellectually challenged, but I had lots of interests, so in parallel I was always involved one way or another in communicating my science. I really enjoy variety, so even inside cosmology, I touched quite a lot of subjects, which meant lots of hours learning new stuff. I always knew that I wanted to touch more things in my life, so that I probably wouldn’t end pursuing an academic career in cosmology but I enjoyed my time doing so and also enjoyed living far away from home and getting to work in an international collaboration.

Then I decided to explore other fields (even outside of academia), which meant talking to a lot of people. I went to Boston, to Barcelona, … and thought about urban planning, music research, psychology, and all kinds of things, but ended up landing a postdoc in the Earth Sciences Department at UPenn after seeing an inspiring talk about climate change by my soon-to-be boss Irina Marinov and after proving myself useful after 6 months collaborating with her. I learnt about oceanography and published papers on the Southern Ocean, oxygen models, phytoplankton, … and climate change.

Then I had two children and moved back to Europe where I got another postdoc in Barcelona but I was already thinking about my next move. I wanted something more practical, applied, probably outside of academia, but definitely related to climate change, data visualization, consulting… who knows. By then, I had a lot less time to work, I was sleep deprived because of babies, and I was isolated from people because I worked remotely most of the time, and so I applied for a leadership program that culminated in Antarctica. That was about the time in my life that I realized that life is not infinite, and that doing a lot of different things means that you might fall behind in comparison to other people that stuck to their initial career (note that this is just a perception but a fear for many). 

In 2019 I went to Antarctica with 100 women scientists, filmed it all and ventured to make a documentary, Begin again, about motherhood, women, Antarctica, climate change and our future. We have been selected in 5 film festivals. This experience also motivated me to write two children’s books (Mamma Goes to Antarctica and The Secret Life of Viruses) because I believe that educating about our impact on Earth is crucial to building a better future. The secret life of the viruses was written together with Ellas Lideran, an association of which I am a co-founder and which promotes the climate and gender agenda in Spain. During these years I have also been involved in education programs to teach kids about sustainability and social justice and have been more and more involved with media and even some diplomacy. 

Right now, I work part time as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in a climate security project, so I am learning a lot about geopolitics. I hope I can keep going this path. My interests keep moving to the social part of climate change, and so does my job. In general, being an astrophysicist and doing a PhD in general opens your brain for anything else. You can continue being an astrophysicist and work from inside to pour more money into climate research or awareness or change how telescopes operate or change travel culture or improve sustainable solutions. Or you can pursue a career in data visualization very useful in climate, or go into hard-code modeling coding, or consulting. One way of transitioning is by collaborating with other academic disciplines and slowly move into the new field, or by doing a masters in diplomacy, or data visualization, or machine learning, that opens the doors for new opportunities much quicker.  

My career is very much shaped by other things in life, such as having children or my desire to live near my family in Europe or having a partner whose only priority is to continue being an astrophysicist, while my priority is life, family, and to contribute to a fair, sustainable future, one that takes into account the quality of life of future generations and the care for our planet (very broad, I know). Right now, this means that I am not a professor nor I earn a lot of money nor do I have financial stability, and this sometimes creates stress, but we talk about our priorities again and again with the family to adjust our needs. 

Raina Sukhnani: teaching physics includes climate action

Hello, my name is Raina Sukhnani, and I am a high school physics teacher.

My students have talked about climate justice and demanded action as they face the prospect of having no future. My physics students and myself are involved in the process of computing the carbon emissions resulting from the construction and operation of all of the telescopes and space missions.

We have an objective of viewing the amount of carbon dioxide that astronomers add when they spend their lives peering up at the sky, far away from Earth to conduct their operations. How all of this stargazing impacts the Earth, particularly its climate and contributes to global warming. 

Statistics says that these telescopes emit approximately around 20 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. With that census, each astronomer contributes about 36 metric tonnes per year to the profession’s emissions.

Astronomers are facing problems because amount of carbon dioxide and climate change  such as changes in temperature, wind speed, humidity, and “seeing” – air turbulence that produces image blurring. This will degrade the quality of observations at ground-based telescopes around the planet. As a result, rising global temperatures may exacerbate seasonal El Niño outbursts and reduce the quality of telescope photographs. Hence, when constructing new structures, climate change must be taken into account.

The integrated water vapor (IWV), relative humidity, and cloud covering are three crucial characteristics of operating astronomical instruments. During El Niño episodes, high IWV levels at Paranal, which impact infrared astronomical studies, were linked to high central equatorial sea surface temperatures. Even though such events are a normal, recurring occurrence, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere may make them more violent due to the concomitant global rise in humidity. Because of turbulence in the upper atmosphere, stars appear to twinkle to the naked eye. The VLT’s existing thermal active control system, on the other hand, is limited to target temperatures of less than 16 degrees Celsius.

Since atmospheric CO2 has already been linked to a 1.5°C increase in average temperatures at Paranal over the last 40 years – 0.5°C higher than the global average – any additional local increases in surface temperature could further obstruct observations.

Using the worst-case scenario for climate change, Earth’s average temperature might rise by another 4°C, causing even more air turbulence. While adaptive optics can aid with air turbulence correction, the time lag associated with these adjustments causes a wind-driven halo, which is an image artifact. These halos, which are created by winds from the southern subtropical jet stream, can be seen in 30–40% of photos, drastically lowering the contrast. However, there is reason to believe that change is possible and that our actions may make a difference. As a means of getting through this, hope is essential. So don’t give up.

Astronomers have a disproportionately large carbon footprint per person. We may lower our carbon footprint in a variety of ways, such as in the construction and operation of telescope facilities and the optimization and reduction of travel. Astronomers have a responsibility to address climate change in every way imaginable, and we must do it immediately.

This article was written as a part of our Climate Change Series. We’d love to hear what you would like to see from this initiative – if you have ideas, please let us know in this google form.

Astrobite edited by: Suchitra Narayanan

Featured image credit: NASA (Earth image) & ESA and the Planck Collaboration (Planck CMB image)

About Olivia Cooper

I'm a second year grad student at UT Austin studying the obscured early universe, specifically the formation and evolution of dusty star-forming galaxies. In undergrad at Smith College, I studied astrophysics and climate change communication. Besides doing science with pretty pictures of distant galaxies, I also like driving to the middle of nowhere to take pretty pictures of our own galaxy!

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