Arecibo telescope’s fall is indicative of global divide around funding science infrastructure — The Conversation


Once featured in movies, TV shows and video games, the Arecibo Observatory was the pride of Puerto Rico.
RICARDO ARDUENGO / Contributor / AFP via Getty Images

Raquel Velho, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

A mere two weeks after the National Science Foundation declared it would close the Arecibo single-dish radio telescope – once the largest in the world – the observatory took a dramatic dying breath and collapsed on Dec. 1, 2020.

The Arecibo Observatory Collapse in Puerto Rico.

While drone footage captured the moment in excruciating detail, in truth, the disintegration of the telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico began far before this cinematic end.

It is tempting to blame the demise of Arecibo on the physical damage it sustained earlier in 2020, when an auxiliary metal cable snapped – perhaps a delayed consequence of Tropical Storm Isaias or the earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico. But Arecibo’s downfall was, in reality, caused by years of financial struggles.

As someone who studies technology and infrastructure development, I see what happened at Arecibo as a classic example of the tension between facility maintenance and scientific progress.

From prominence to ruin

Completed in 1963, Arecibo collected data that led to one Nobel Prize and played a critical role in a second. In 1992, it was the first observatory to spot planets outside Earth’s solar system. In the past decades, it also played a large role in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including broadcasting the first terrestrial message to outer space.

But for all its achievements, U.S. commitment to Arecibo began to falter in 2006. The National Science Foundation, which supported Arecibo, implemented a 15% budget cut that year across its Division of Astronomical Sciences. Arecibo was among the first facilities on the chopping block, despite its continued productivity.

The previous year, the NSF had announced it was preparing to reallocate funds between existing facilities in order to initiate “new activities.” These initiatives included the funding and development of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, starting in 2003.

The decision to cut Arecibo’s funding was met with resistance from the scientific community and beyond, including the then-governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who wrote to the NSF requesting reconsideration.

But in 2007 Arecibo’s budget was slashed from US$10.5 to $8 million. With a second major cut scheduled for four years later, the closure of the facility seemed imminent. Instead, the NSF tasked a new consortium to take over the management of Arecibo in 2011, changing it from a federally funded institution to one that could seek funds from other sources.

Optimism about this development soon gave way to pessimism. NSF continued to support Arecibo, with NASA pitching in a third of costs. However, the balancing act of a flat NSF budget and the promise of other new observatory projects once again threatened the observatory. In 2015, Robert Kerr, then facilities director of Arecibo, quit – allegedly over funding clashes. In 2018, the University of Central Florida took over management of Arecibo and helped it recover from damages sustained by Hurricane Maria.

But the end was coming. On November 19, 2020, the NSF finally announced the official end of operations at the telescope.

Pride of place

A community of astronomers and locals are actively mourning the ruins of Arecibo. Beyond its scientific success, Arecibo signified more.

#WhatAreciboMeansToMe, a hashtag on Twitter, has collected hundreds of stories from locals and tourists, astronomers and enthusiasts alike. Puerto Rican voices are loud here, many recounting childhood memories of hiking up the trail to the Ángel Ramos Visitors’ Center.

The Arecibo Observatory occupied a space of pride for Puerto Rican scientists and the local community. In many ways, it was a symbol of the island. Through this lens, to watch the Arecibo Observatory be allowed to collapse and become rubble is painful for many, especially when contrasted with defunct observatories in the continental United States, where a number are preserved as historical sites.

In Latin America, infrastructure projects are often tied to ideas about economic development – a potential answer to solve a country’s ills. In this context, to watch a prized facility literally crumble, as the United States retracted its financial involvement, seems like nothing less than abandonment.

It is interesting to note that controversy has often followed the construction of large astronomy facilities. From the Maunakea Observatories being built on land sacred to native Hawaiians to labor disputes in the building of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, to the seizing of lands and racial tensions surrounding the Square Kilometer Array in the Karoo region of South Africa, a pattern emerges of Northern scientific institutions investing in regions with long colonial histories – and stirring up local concern and discontent.

In the case of Arecibo, these disputes flared at the end rather than at the beginning. But a similar lack of interest in how scientific research facilities fit the place they inhabit is clear. In my view, it is time to begin discussions beyond the scientific importance of research facilities. Planners must address their full life cycles and their impact on local communities.The Conversation

Raquel Velho, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Researchers say #climatechange is making the atmosphere thirstier — and increasing the danger of #wildfire, #drought — The #Nevada Independent #ActOnClimate

Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

We talk about it a lot: Across the Southwest, human-caused warming is changing the way that water falls as snow or rain, creating uncertainty around the regional water supplies we rely on.

Yet precipitation tells only one part of the story. Climate scientists expect another less-discussed variable to increase the risks of wildfires and droughts in Nevada and California over the coming decades. That variable is known as “evaporative demand,” and it’s effectively a measure of how thirsty the atmosphere is — the extent to which the atmosphere is trying to evaporate water.

That all might sound technical, but evaporative demand has real-world consequences. In a new paper, Nevada and California researchers showed how greater atmospheric thirst, mainly driven by warming temperatures, could have major implications for drought and wildfire risk.

“We saw this steady increase in evaporative demand through the end of the century,” said Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Desert Research Institute and Western Regional Climate Center.

What McEvoy and the paper’s co-authors found was that greater seasonal evaporative demand — a roughly 13 to 18 percent increase by the end of the century — could dry out the landscape, creating conditions that are likely to increase the danger of intense fire and multiyear droughts.

Recent fires have already been linked to extreme days of evaporative demand. Those extreme days are expected to increase, the paper found, and that could result in more wildfire danger.

McEvoy said the results showed “steadily increasing extreme days.” By the late century, from 2070 to 2099, the paper forecasted a four to ten-fold increase in the number of extreme days.

The paper, published in Earth’s Future last month, helps to fill in a gap around predicting the effects of climate change across the state. Drought involves both precipitation trends and evaporative demand. But as the state’s newly released climate strategy explains, there remains a degree of uncertainty around how climate change will affect precipitation. That’s not the case when it comes to evaporative demand, which has risen in Nevada over the past four decades.

Julie Kalansky, a co-author of the paper and a researcher based out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said both variables must be weighed.

“When you think about drought just as the lack of precipitation — and without the evaporative demand — you are missing a relatively large piece of the puzzle,” Kalansky said in an interview.

Echo Canyon Reservoir drained 5 feet below spillway for dam repairs — The Pagosa Springs Sun

Map credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Simone Mounsamy):

CPW Southwest Region Public Information Officer Joe Lewandowski informed The SUN that during a routine inspection of the dam in late October, “A crack in the earthen dam at Echo Reservoir was discovered.”

He explained that CPW’s dam safety engineers worked with Division of Water Resources (DWR) dam safety engineers to control the water level drawdown, and have filled and covered the crack.

According to Lewandowski, dam safety engineers will continue to monitor the embankment over winter. Though the crack has been reported to be stable, CPW is working with DWR to determine future measures that would ensure the integrity of the dam embankment.

“That process will take several months and there is no timeline,” Lewandowski stated.