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I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes — six at the time, something like 14 now, depending on how you count — have always evoked a strong emotional resonance in me. I’ve written about it before (click here) but MK is always worth a revisit.

Our motivation this time was a visit from Laura and Brian, our old friends from Honolulu, who despite their decades in the islands had somehow never made it to the summit. Fortunately our Lincoln Behemoth Navigator has four wheel drive, so up we went, not without a little wariness: conditions at the summit were reported as below freezing temperatures and nearly 50 mph (80 kph) winds. We did have the good sense to bring along long pants and assorted sweaters and jackets.

Our first stop was the visitor center at Hale Pohaku at 9200 ft (2800 m) altitude. That site was chosen carefully: it is just below the elevation at which altitude sickness sets in for those who are susceptible to it. We stayed long enough to put on warm clothes, use the facilities, and — in my case — purchase my new favorite teeshirt and cap:

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I worked at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), whose name you can see on the cap and whose relative telescope mirror size you can at the upper right on the shirt. (Imparting this fact to the cashier got me a 10% discount on my purchase, which pleased me no end.) At the time I worked here, UKIRT’s 3.8 m mirror was the largest on the mountain; now it is not even close. Here is what it looks like from the outside.

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I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

The view at the summit is spectacular and rather Martian-looking, an expanse of lifeless rusty volcanic rubble and cinder cones.

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But we couldn’t linger; the weather wouldn’t allow it. Here is a worker chipping ice off one of the domes:

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…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

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And if you want to get up close and personal with the weather, here is what the guardrail of the summit road looked like as we parked in the lee of one of the domes:

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As I said, we could not linger.

There is a lot of controversy at the moment surrounding Mauna Kea’s astronomy enterprise. There are very advanced plans to build the largest telescope of them all, the Thirty Meter Telescope, known as the TMT. For my non-metric readers, that is a mirror nearly 100 feet across, a truly giant and enormously capable instrument that would break new astronomical ground but take up a very visible spot on the mountain. But the island hosts a vocal minority of activists who view all of the telescopes — and certainly this planned one — as a desecration of a sacred place: Mauna Kea reaches to the sky, close to the gods. Their view is certainly not universal: there are many Hawaiian traditionalists who feel that since their ancestors were voyagers, the telescopes on the mountain are another form of voyage, honoring the ancient tradition by sending our eyes and minds to the stars. Needless to say, I subscribe pretty strongly to this view. But as a result of the uproar there is a real question as to whether the TMT will be built here; the planners are seriously consider siting the telescope in the Canary Islands (where there are already several other observatories) to avoid the controversy.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

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The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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