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There is No “Planet B”


Astronomy has a rich history of teaching us about our own home planet. From researching planetary-wide phenomena such as dust storms on Mars, extreme heat on Venus from a runaway greenhouse effect, and the anti-greenhouse effect on Saturn’s moon Titan, we’ve come to learn more about Earth’s history, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, the importance of plate tectonics in recycling carbon, and the preciousness of liquid water. We’ve discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, some even Earth-like, and we are tempted to dream that there may be countless second homes for us both within and beyond our own solar system. However, a growing community of astronomers across the world, including several at WVU, are coming together as a group called “Astronomers for Planet Earth” to say, “There is no ‘Planet B.’ We must take care of Earth.”

Earthrise image take on Apollo 8 that shows the earth rising over the surface of the moon.

The famous “Earthrise” image captured by the Apollo 8 crew on Dec 24, 1968. Lovel said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have.” Source: NASA

While only 43% of West Virginians believe global warming is mostly human caused (Yale Climate Opinion Maps), multiple peer-reviewed publications show resounding scientific consensus, with over 97% of scientists agreeing that climate change is human-caused (NASA). Furthermore, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that it is “unequivocal” that humans have warmed the planet, causing “widespread and rapid” changes to Earth’s ecosystems and warns that global action to slow climate change is required or we “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Astronomy can give us the “big picture” perspective that can guide and inspire us to come together as Earthlings who share this one precious planet. However, we must also “own up” to our own impact. A recently published article in “Nature Astronomy” calculates a carbon footprint estimate for our profession at over 1.2 million tons of carbon per year – more than entire countries, such as Estonia. From building and launching satellites and observatories, to traveling for conferences, and, sneakily, from computer power needed to store and analyze data, the astronomy profession uses a lot of energy.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have.” Lovell

So how do we move forward with studying the heavens while fully grounded in an ethos of stewardship for Earth? “Astronomers for Planet Earth” is working to lead the way through education and urging a fundamental re-imagining of how we do the work of astronomy. The path ahead will not be easy, but many of us got into this field because we have an appreciation for Earth and sky, and we find ourselves at crossroads.