that’s 4 On the morning of June 17, Michelle Edwards, deputy director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, had the news: A wildfire had smashed the path to the telescope. Even though she has spent days coordinating the observatory’s conservation plan and turning her office into a fire command center, she’s still a little scared. “I don’t think you can really anticipate that call,” Edwards said.
The Contreras Fire was sparked by a lightning strike six days ago on Arizona’s Tohono Oldham National Land, a few miles southeast of the summit where Kitt Peak sits. Winds and dry vegetation quickly pushed the blaze to 500 acres, prompting Edwards to begin evacuating non-essential personnel as firefighters arrived days later. Then, they prepared for the worst: Firefighters cleaned the brushes and sprinkled them with flame retardant. The team of essential staff visited Kitt Peak’s 23 telescopes, covering the dome and turning off the electronics.
On June 17, the fire slammed into many telescopes on the summit’s southwest ridge, destroying a cabin, dormitory and utility shed. The fire damaged at least 18 utility poles and disrupted power and data services, meaning the observatory’s science operations won’t resume until at least the end of August. “Unfortunately, Arizona is becoming a hotbed for wildfires,” Edwards said. “And we’ve seen the impact of fires before on Kitt Peak, although it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
Kitt Peak isn’t the first observatory to be threatened as climate change exacerbates the severity of wildfires. Other areas of research that rely on glaciers, snow, and remote weather stations face similar warming-related problems. “This is just another example of how so many important human efforts are at risk,” said Adrienne Cool of San Francisco State University, who co-founded a global nonprofit called Astronomers for Earth, or A4E.
In 2011, a massive wildfire endangered the McDonald Observatory in Texas. In 2013, a bushfire swept through Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory. The Lick Observatory in California narrowly avoided damage two years ago, despite the fire causing nearly $8 million worth of damage to surrounding homes and burning down a nearby amateur observatory. A month later, a wildfire broke out at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles within a few hundred feet of the site.
Deciding where to build an observatory is strategic: Astronomers choose locations (like mountains) with reliable good weather, a stable atmosphere, and clear skies so the telescope can function for decades to come. (Lick is the oldest mountaintop observatory in the world, operating since 1888; Kitt Peak’s first dome was built nearly 70 years ago.) “We build telescopes in the sun and in dry places,” said A4E founding member Travis Recht, an astronomer at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “These are the perfect conditions for a forest fire.”
Fires aren’t the only natural disasters that put observatories at risk. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. (It was further damaged by a broken cable in 2020 and collapsed a few months later.) According to the principal, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world to place telescopes due to its historical lack of rainfall— Now it suffers from frequent storms and floods. Last month, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile was closed due to one of the biggest snowstorms in the region. It’s not that extreme weather hasn’t happened before, it’s that climate change is making it more frequent and intense, Rector said. It also affects the research itself: as temperatures rise, the quality of telescope images gets worse.