Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Goodbye, Heinz, I will miss you

A photo by Böhringer Friedrich. Typical scenery of the places Heinz took me to.

This has been an unpleasant year for so many people to say the least. On the personal side though, I lost my second mother a few months ago and tonight I've just been told that my favourite cousin, Heinz, has passed away.

As my mum told me, this is in fact a blessing, he was suffering so much from an illness that no doctor in Austria could diagnose. It started off with paralysis of his feet and then spread throughout his body. In the end he wasn't able to be physically active and that just wasn't Heinz. He must have been so miserable but he had his family with him and that would have been a huge blessing.

Heinz was the very definition of "jolly". A big, active, fantastic father and a very happy man who really liked hunting in the foothills of the Alps. My visits to my family in Austria would invariably end up with Heinz taking me out to his favourite places in the foothills and we'd spend the evening up in a tree waiting for something for him to shoot. And the next evening and the next..

I loved it. He never actually shot anything while I was there (which I'm kind of happy about), but just to be in the most beautiful place in the world, being silent and just taking in the beauty of the place, while Heinz whispered to me where I should be looking for game in a language I didn't understand, is something that will stay in my memory forever. One morning, after a fruitless night spent in a treehouse, we were on our way back to the cabin when he spotted some deer miles away in a clearing on top of a hill. He aimed his gun and then muttered something to me in German. I don't know what he said, but he passed the gun to me and I looked through the scope. It was a mother deer with a couple of fawns, and he wasn't going to shoot the mother or her children.

He did actually manage to shoot game every so often. On more than one occasion he'd bring back some huge beast that the family (and me) would feast on for weeks afterwards.

One day he actually took me out on a hunt in a cornfield to track down a huge wild boar that he'd shot and injured the day before, and kept reminding me (in German!) during the entire hike that I should keep an eye out because the beast was injured and would likely charge and kill anyone it saw. That was Heinz's sense of humour and one I loved, although I was very nervous during the whole hike! I took a big stick with me just in case, but when he finally brought the boar home the next day I realised that stick woudn't have helped very much.

Heinz was a wonderful person, he took me to places so beautiful I can't even begin to describe them and even though we never spoke the same language, we knew what we were saying to each other, and the times we were silent in the Alpine forests meant we were both taking in the beauty.

I'll cry again tonight, I did so when I was told Heinz had passed away (sorry, mum!), but I'll have some wonderful memories to take into the new year. Typical Heinz as well, he made sure he was with his family for one last Christmas.


Unbelievably, it's still raining, another few inches today and more to come, perhaps even some thunderstorms as well. I am going nuts and desperately need to see sunlight again, I don't cope well without getting a dose of vitamin D every so often. Then again, it would be nice to see anything, as HELCO once again lost power this evening just as I arrived back from work, so it was candlelight only for a while. The electric grid here is so unstable it reminds me of a third world country sometimes.

As for Mauna Kea, a few more inches of snow fell today and is still falling. Only observatory vehicles are allowed up but with the warning that they must keep an eye on conditions to avoid becoming trapped at the summit. I suspect no-one's taking up the offer. The snowfall is forecast to continue through the weekend. If that's the case, we'll be lucky to even find the observatories next week when and if this storm finally departs. Still, when the sky clears, Mauna Kea will be an absolutely spectacular sight.

Update (at 8:30pm HST): Half an hour ago the NWS issued a winter storm warning for the Big Island summits. That's quite rare as usually it's an advisory rather than a full-blown warning.



Monday, 29 December 2008

Climate change

You know, there are too many scientifically-illiterate and uninformed people chiming in about climate change ("global warming" for the tree-huggers out there). The good news is that these people appear on both sides of the argument and sort of even themselves out a little and one day I might say something about the effect myself. For now I'll limit things to saying there's climate change, there always has been and always will be.

What's much more important is that I think I'm turning into a local, at least in my subjective but very important (to me) opinion. I don't know if this is something I should worry about, but it's climate-related.

I moved here a little over twelve years ago and shared a house with a colleague and good friend. He told me that during the winter, when you get used to the climate, you may have to close a window or two at night. I didn't believe him. It was hot all of the time and it didn't matter if it was night or day. I didn't believe him for two or three years afterwards either.

Well, tonight it's 65 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm freezing my butt off. This just isn't right and perhaps I'm ill or something. I've noticed, however, that I've become increasingly intolerant to temperatures less than 70-degrees, so I'll wait before calling my doctor.

Back in my younger days I always watched the BBC weather forecasts on TV (my father was a meteorologist and actually knew one or two of the TV weather presenters!) and I still remember all of them saying during summer forecasts that the temperature will be about 17 to 18 degrees centigrade overnight, it'll be balmy and you'll have trouble sleeping. They were also correct, it was balmy and sleeping was difficult.

That sleep-inhibiting temperature is about what we have tonight, in fact 17 degrees is downright cold. I still find it hard to believe that I'm now actually agreeing with the locals that it's a cold night tonight. How bizarre. Then again, while I'm in my metamorphosis into a grumpy old man, don't be surprised if I moan about how hot and humid it is next August and September. I'm hard to please these days...

Even so, Hawaiian cats have to find some place warm to sleep on evenings like this.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Mauna Kea gridlock

Snow on Mauna Kea always brings a lot of traffic to the summit; when the access road to the summit is open of course. Today it was opened to the public and the amount of traffic up there was enough to prevent one of our observing teams from reaching the summit, they turned back due to the traffic jam.

It didn't matter too much, our snow-clearing crew went up earlier and despite their work on a Sunday, it doesn't look as though any observing will be possible tonight, but I've never heard of a traffic gridlock on the mountain. The snowfall has been tremendous so I guess a lot of people wanted to go up today to play in the snow.

Yesterday, while access to the summit was still closed to public traffic but open for properly equipped observatory vehicles, our night-time operators went up to check on the state of the observatories and the summit in general during daylight hours when conditions would allow a visual inspection. Without doubt there's been a fair amount of snow up there! Last week the MKWS was forecasting an inch or so of snow. I think there's been a little more than that.

The following pictures were not taken by me but by our intrepid operators on their summit tour yesterday:

On the way to the summit - the Subaru telescope in the mist and snow.

A little further up the access road - the snow blower in action and the road is almost passable.

The true summit - not much lava rock to be seen, just lots of white snow, ice and clouds.

Finally, a view that might look familiar, it's taken from the same place as the picture in the top of my blog and the place I take a lot of sunset shots. It looks cold up there!

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Record rainfall? Yes and no

Since the storm that's hitting the islands has been so intense I hoped to take a picture of the lightning - all I got was sheet-lightning as it was so cloudy. The picture above was taken in the middle of the night.

The storm that hit Hawai'i has been pretty bad, Oahu (and president-elect Obama) was left without power overnight. That's the stuff that gets headlines and perhaps HECO will get their act together after this.

Other headlines have included Hilo on the Big Island getting the highest amount of rainfall in one day. The local TV and radio stations have been pretty excited about this, the ones I've heard have said this is the greatest amount of rainfall in any 24-hour period.

Well, they're wrong. Hilo International Airport received over 9-inches of rain. (I capitalised it to make it look more important than it is, I don't think it serves any other country than the US and it rarely sees aircraft from outside the Hawaiian islands). That is not a 24-hour record. So far I've found several occasions on the NWS site that record more than 10-inches in one day for Hilo.

No matter - nearly 10-inches of rain in 24-hours is a lot of water. In the UK a half-inch of rain will cause floods and get the BBC and the Met office into emergency mode with headlines about torrential rain.

Today my previous request was answered - the rain stopped. Then it started again tonight and so did the thunder and lightning. I guess nature thought that a few hours was enough to dry everything out and that another few inches of rain might be needed. I can tell you that it got it wrong and we're OK for water right now, plants and all. Thanks, anyway, but I'm looking forward to the next drought now...

Update: What I didn't make clear in my post is why the title says "yes and no" Sorry about that. The near-10 inches of rain was not a 24-hour record for Hilo, but it was a record for the amount of rainfall for Hilo on 26th December - by a long way. That's a pretty useless piece of information in my opinion, but the NWS likes to make these sorts of stats more easily accessible than the more interesting ones, like the record rainfall ever (which I think is 15+ inches).

Friday, 26 December 2008

That's enough rain for now, thank you very much.

OK, so we had an extreme drought this summer, but that's enough rainfall for now, thanks, you can turn it off now.

It's been raining heavily for the last 24-hours with little indication it's going to stop anytime soon. The windward side of the Big Island has been under a flash flood warning all day and we were allowed to leave work early due to concerns about highways being flooded. There's only one way in and out of Puna, the district I live in, and the highway is prone to flooding, so I definitely didn't overlook the opportunity!

Some areas have had rainfall rates up to 2-inches per hour, many locations have received over a foot of rain in the last 24-hours and since the ground is already saturated due to recent rains, flooding is a very real concern. Since my electronic rain gauge no longer works (it stopped working when it was underwater during the floods earlier this year and then received a few more volts than it was designed for) I don't know how much rain has fallen at home but would guess 10-15 inches since yesterday evening. The good news is my house hasn't been struck by lightning, which makes a change! The other good news? The noise of the rain drowns out the sound of the coqui frogs who love this moisture...

The Mauna Kea access road is closed due to snow. There was about a foot of snow a fair distance below the summit earlier today but no one knows how much has fallen at the summit because no one can get up there, the road is impassable. The observatories are on their own tonight - and perhaps tomorrow as well.

Most of the thunderstorms stopped at around midday today although the rain didn't. Now, as I write this, there's thunder and lightning again - and it's getting close and a little too frequent for my liking. Time to shutdown for the night I think. The local AM radio station has just gone off air - once again.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Dreaming of a white Christmas

No, that's not snow, although one place on the island is experiencing a white Christmas. Those white blobs are simply raindrops from a particularly heavy shower here tonight reflecting the camera's flashlight. The rain is welcome after a very dry summer, but I hate it when you have to shout to be heard above the clatter of rain on the roof. Don't anyone bother phoning me tonight, you won't hear me and I certainly won't hear you!

I'm sure I'll garner little sympathy from those on the mainland, but this was the coldest Christmas I've experienced since, er, last year, which was the first I spent back in the UK for 12 years. Setting aside last year, I can't remember a colder Christmas day since I arrived in Hawai`i. It didn't get above 74 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees Celsius) here all day. Brrrr! Imagine the terrible discomfort and inconvenience - no Christmas sunbathing this year!

As I write this thunderstorms are everywhere although fortunately none too close - these days I'm very nervous when it comes to thunder as the house has been struck several times over the last three or four years, and it's a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I can tell you. I can hear thunder and see lightning to the north over Hilo, it sounds and looks as though the coast north of here is being pounded. The worst of the storm is yet to come though - I might find myself under the bed with the cats if the lightning gets bad overnight!

I hope everyone had a good Christmas day.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The night before Christmas...

...Hawaiian style, by Margaret Steele.

Wuz da nite befo' Christmas an' from hea to Wailuku,
No creetcha wuz stirrin' not even one uku.
Da Keikis wen snuggle down safe in da beds,
Big dreams of tofuti wen dance roun' da heads.
An' me wid my Primo an' Ma wid her poi,
We jus' settle down fo' one rap, - when oh Boy!
One awful big clatter come from da lanai,
I tink maybe coconuts wen fall from da sky.
I wen jump up so fas' I knock ova da chaia
I wen run to da windo to see what stay dea.
All ova da beach da kine silva moonlight
On da sand an' da sea it shinin' so bright,
I can see all da tings on da sho' plenty clea,
An' I see sumting out dea dat stay mo' plenty quea!
One tiny surfboard lyin' der on da groun'
An' eight tiny sea horses jus' swimmin' aroun'
An' one little ol surfer so lively, so quick, -
I wen tink to myself, "Ey, brah! Dat Saint Nick!"
He wuz chubby an' jolly, da kine roly poly,
An' dressed all in fur fro da chin to okole.
He had one white beard an' one little roun' belly
Dat went shake when he laugh like Tutu's guava jelly.
He wastin' no time, brah, he wen put down da sack
Dat wuz big as one mountain slung up on his back.
He got plenty good tings for all da keiki
An' he wen pile dem unda da coconut tree.
He work an' he work an' he neva pau hana
Til he put someting der fo' all da Ohana.
He wen give me one wink an' one shaka, an' - pau!
Da seahorses dey know it come time to go now!
He wen pick up da board an' he run to da ocean,
He wen harness da team an' he settem in motion.
Mo fasta dan jet planes da seahorses swum
He wen whistle an' shout an' he call 'em each one:
"Go Kimo, Go Noni! Gettum Kipo an' Lani!
Go Kona, go Pua! Geevum Kiki an' Nani"

To da cres of da wave, tru da foam an' da spray,
Dey swimmin' like crazy, dey flyin' away!
Til all I wen see on da wata out fa,
Wuz one twinkle of light like one dyin' out star.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Back home for Christmas

Firstly, this is not my picture, I got it from here. I have not yet been fortunate enough to take a good picture of the humpback whales in Hawai'i.

The coquis are becoming a little quieter tonight, the surf isn't too loud although I can still hear the waves crashing against the cliffs, but I can hear something else as well. It's a really strange sound, something similar to "aawhooheee" followed by a "hhrrmmpphh" and then a "bwosshhh!".

I've heard the sound before and eleven years ago, at about this time of year, I heard it for the first time. I'd just arrived back from work, it was a quiet windless evening with the sun about to set and I heard the strangest sounds to the north. I stopped and tried to listen in case my imagination was playing tricks, but I heard it again. Whoohoohaaeee! Bwoshhh! Slap! Hrmph!

Eleven years ago I ran upstairs and out into the lanai. In those days the nearby ocean was easily visible from there (the beautiful palm trees in my back yard have grown since then!). I needed to know what was causing that strange sound.

Back then, a few hundred yards away, was a mother humpback whale and her baby sheltering in the bay. The noises were the mother calling to her calf and the occasional tail and flipper slap on the ocean's surface followed by a violent exhalation of air through her blowhole. I could even hear the calf 's calls every so often.

Tonight I can hear the same thing but it's too dark to go to the cliffs. I can relax, though, knowing that a mother and baby are back home for Christmas. I wonder if the mother is that calf from eleven years ago?

Sunday, 21 December 2008

A lazy afternoon with a banshee

There were so many plans I had for my 4-day weekend: paint the inside and outside of the house, replace the roof, build a new deck, kill all the moss in the garden and plant a new lawn, kill every coqui within a half-mile radius and finally chop down the rubbish trees and plant some fruit trees in their place. So what happened?

I bought a nice copper-plated thermometer for the lanai, a sandwich maker and some fertiliser. Oh, and I took some trash to the solid waste transfer station ("the dump" for my British friends).

The thermometer is great, it always reads 76 degrees, so clearly the climate here is more stable than I realised. I haven't been out in the garden to use the fertiliser but the sandwich maker works, I used it this morning to make a nice grilled cheese and ham sandwich. So much for plans...

I settled in for the day to watch some NFL football and then fell asleep and missed most of the latter game. That shopping trip yesterday must have tired me out more than I realised. So, before the Sunday night game started (and what a game it was in the end!), I headed off to Hilo not really knowing what I was going to do, but just had to get out of the house. A visit to Home Depot was definitely on the cards though.

On the way I stopped to take a picture of Hilo Bay and it's the one above. The water looked inviting but the time needed to correct any problems with the panorama didn't, so you get whatever the first run through hugin gets you. I have more important things to do like feed the cats.

Then, when I realised I had the camera with me, I took a drive to the scenic route just north of Hilo. That was a mistake.

On that route there's a spot you can park your car and take a nice picture of the coast. There was no-one around today so I parked the car, got out and started to take several pictures which I'd planned to make into a mind-blowing panorama that would make everyone else really jealous!

I was halfway through that process when there was a scream from hell about two feet behind me. Not only did I try and throw the camera over the cliff's edge I was standing on, I was going to throw myself off the cliff as well. Anything would be better than facing the banshee who'd sneaked up behind me.


A couple of local girls, and "girls" is a relative term here, had driven up behind me without me noticing and parked their Honda on a blind curve assuring an accident if any unfortunate tourists were driving the other way. It was OK though, they left their hazard lights on.

I find it hard to describe my feelings when this happened. I was carefully aligning my camera to take some great shots of the coastline, was halfway through the dozen or so shots required and was really concentrating hard. Try sneaking up on the next person you see in the post office working hard on filling in a form, get within a couple of feet of them and then shout to your friend a hundred yards away that they really should see this. Then imagine a 200-foot drop right in front of your victim.

I was not happy, but at least I'm still alive to write this. It's the season of goodwill so will try to forget this incident, but boy, it'll be difficult.

The panorama I tried to take? Pretty much destroyed. The camera lense is dirty but hopefully isn't damaged, it doesn't like being jammed into a wooden fence and then dropped to the ground.

I was trying to take a panorama of this place:

As for visiting Home Depot? Perhaps another day...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

I'll do the sunset, you take the sunrise

Just a heads-up, but Ant has been taking some amazing sunrise images on Mauna Kea. Unlike me, Ant knows how to take good photos. He works down in Submillimeter Valley which I don't think is that great for pictures of the setting sun, I may be wrong about that, but it definitely offers opportunities at sunrise! Ant's latest photograph is here.

Speckled sky

During yesterday's visit to the Lava Tree State Park I tried to take a panorama of the canopy above the park because it looks so spectacular. Unfortunately, the Hugin software didn't work too well although it made a valiant attempt, I will try again another day. The picture above is actually output from Hugin, but the area I pictured was much larger.

When you look straight up at the sky from the trail in the park it looks very strange, I can't think of the right word to describe it, but it's as striking as anything I can think of. Unfortunately, I don't know the species of tree that creates the canopy. Can anyone help me out? Is it Albizia?

The enchanted forest

There is a very special place on the windward side of Hawai'i - the Puna coast. I won't be specific about the location but those that live here know where it is and I'm sure you won't give it away either! It's where I go to watch humpback whales and just get away from everything when I need to. It's quiet, on the whole mostly devoid of tourists, stunningly beautiful, in fact I think the most beautiful place on the island, and only a thirty-minute drive from home. I went there today.

The coastline road has been redirected recently and one or two of my favourite spots are a little harder to get to now, but it's still the best place on the planet to escape everyday life. If I could play slack-key guitar you'd find me out there for every sunset - when I'm not working at the summit of course!

Although the road that runs along the coastline has undergone a few changes in the last year or two, one part is unchanged and has always caught my attention; I like to call it the "enchanted forest". It's hard to photograph well, not least because I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing when it comes to photography, but I had a go anyway:

On the way back from the forest I stopped to watch the surfers at Isaac Hale Beach Park but they were too far away, even this great little camera couldn't make up for the distance, so I took a picture of the ocean and a green-looking plant instead. I didn't want to go away empty-handed.

Between the Puna coast and home is Lava Tree State Park. I'm always amazed that there are so few visitors there although the reputation it has for cars being broken into may play a part in that. No matter, it's beautiful, and offers something I don't think you can see in other places around the world - lavafied trees.

I may have this wrong, but what I believe happened is that this area was subject to quick flowing lava flows a few hundred years ago. The molten lava flooded the area, but then fissures opened up in the ground and the lava drained away very rapidly, fissures like this:

The lava that contacted the ohia trees was cooled by the trees' moisture and didn't drain away quite so quickly and what remained were lavafied tree stumps like this:

I suspect one of my few readers is going to have a field day with that last picture! In any case, it's a place a few more people should visit - it's a well-kept jungle and there aren't too many places in the world like that.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Gettin' Hugin-Happy

My good friend Ant told me the other day that I was getting hugin-happy. Well, I guess I am but Ant was the person who suggested I use it in the first place, so all complaints should be sent to him.

I found its limitations today though, 15 images of the sky in Lava Tree State Park has defeated it, although perhaps it's my very dated PC. In any case, despite the defeat, I had a little more fun with hugin. Without doubt this is a great piece of software, and it's free!

Today's adventure took me to the Puna coast and the state park as well as a shopping trip in Pahoa. More on the trip later, but one thing I wanted to do was take a few panoramas to see how the hugin software stood up. It worked well at the summit, but could it cope with jungle?

Not bad. It's a fairly uninteresting shot although it makes a change from summit sunsets. The jungle in Lava Tree State Park is well kept though, so not really jungle, but everything is very green. I had to keep moving though before my car was broken into...

It was about 5pm, not long before sunset, and I really wanted to head down towards the molten lava from Kilauea entering the ocean. In the end it was far too late to take a hike out to the flow, but at least I had another opportunity to test hugin:

A sunset through an Ohia forest and the plume from the lava entering the ocean. This came out better than I expected.

For Diane and Keera

Diane - for not lowering yourself to the gutter in your last comment, no matter how much it made me laugh! ;)

Keera - just because I think you'll like this picture!


Thursday, 18 December 2008

Welcome home

Sometimes it's worth seeing things from another point of view.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Allowed home for the weekend

Tonight was the big night! After weeks of intensive work on an instrument upgrade which has recently been bedevilled by poor weather on commissioning nights, visiting astronomers were let loose at the summit to try and get some real science from it. This is not the first time I've been involved in instrument commissioning and the first real science night is always a bit of a nerve-wracking time, especially at start-up during sunset.

Since my boss was up as well, I said to everyone "I'm just popping outside for a minute, if there's a problem you'll find me there" and promptly took off my big "I'm an astronomer" coat and mingled with the unwary tourists. "They'll never find me now!".

In the hope that I wouldn't have to be back at the summit for the next few nights I took my last set of summit sunset photos for a couple of weeks although the sky tonight wasn't the best for these type of photos - it was relatively clear overhead and it's the clouds that make the colours so wonderful, but there were enough around - enough so that I could blame the weather for the instrument's poor performance?

I tried to get a silhouette of UKIRT in front of the setting sun, but it didn't quite work out as I wanted, the UH 88-inch telescope was in the way and I couldn't go any further to my right, so this was my best effort (I hope those three gents aren't our visiting astronomers out looking for me).

The highest volcano on the island of Maui was visible though, Haleakala, and between it and myself and my new tourist friends, the NASA IRTF. I don't think the red stuff in the foreground snow is blood, at least I hope it isn't. I suspect it's paint from a long-melted snowman, or it's a crime scene. There were no police or witnesses to be seen though, so I quickly made my escape.

Turning the other way, to the east, the shadow of Mauna Kea was magnificent. The shot is a little underexposed, but that's deliberate (ahem). The reason for the underexposure is it brought out the strange atmospheric/optical effect above the mountain's shadow. I used to know what caused that effect, but my oxygen-depleted brain has forgotten. It looked fantastic though.

So how did the instrument perform? Well, I think our visiting astronomers are quite happy. There are no gripes or moans in the online night log, so this is a good thing. There's still half a night to go though at the time of writing. Who knows what'll happen? Still, the boss is up there right now and hasn't called me, and even allowed me to go home this evening! Even more, he gave me the next two days off work, so now I have a 4-day weekend!

He's either fed up with the sight of me or perhaps the commissioning team didn't do such a bad a job after all...


The summit of Hualalai volcano peeks out from the clouds, mist and vog earlier this evening. It's one of the five volcanoes that makes up the Big Island and is the third most active, although it hasn't erupted since 1801. Many communities and resorts now exist on the flanks of Hualalai but they should be aware! Although Hualalai hasn't erupted for over 200 years, it is expected to erupt again, probably within the next 100 years and has the potential for violent and explosive eruptions. It is considered one of the more dangerous volcanoes in the USA.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

An interesting drive down

We gave up trying to observe in the early morning, it was completely pointless and with hours of cirrus yet to come from the west there was no hope of being able to do any work on sky.

Soon after leaving the relatively safe paved road on the upper part of the mountain we came upon this sight. This isn't the first time I've come across a crashed vehicle on the mountain, nor will it be, I'm sure, the last, but there's always the worrying thought that you're the first people to come across the wreck and there are injured people inside.

Of course we stopped and immediately went to give help, but the wreck was empty and it was obvious there had been helpers there already. After making sure things were secure we continued the drive down to HP in the hope of finding out a little more. On the way we passed a police truck on its way up to the wreck and spoke to the officers, who didn't seem to know too much. We said we'd pass on any news we heard via their dispatcher.

At HP we heard the occupants were already on their way to hospital and it didn't sound too bad, so we called the police to let them know. Maybe I'll find out a little more tomorrow, but I hope everyone is OK.

If this had happened another mile down the dirt road, it may have been a different story. That's where if you go off the road, you keep on going...

Oh no, not another one!

Yes, another sunset photo! I must find another hobby soon, although the weather at sea level has been bad and was the type that made me wish I had a fireplace at home. The summit received quite a bit of snow last week and more was forecast for the weekend, but it didn't arrive and last week's fall is already melting. Unfortunately for us, the sky is full of mid- to high-level cloud which makes observing impossible although some of the submillimeter telescopes might stand a chance.

The panorama above includes the true summit of Mauna Kea to the left, Mauna Loa directly ahead with a snow-capped summit, although not easy to make out in the fading light, the usual tourists up to view the sunset (and collect the snow) and the distant Hualalai volcano whose summit can be made out through the mist in the distance.

On the other side of the road the telescopes come into view. To the left and in the distance is Hualalai volcano again, and in the valley (know to the local workforce as Submillimeter Valley), the CSO, JCMT and the SMA (the latter two cleverly camouflaged). On the ridge, Subaru, the twin Kecks and the NASA IRTF. Only Subaru and the CSO seem keen to start observing!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Summit snow

Quite a few inches of snow fell overnight on both the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea summits. The Mauna Kea road is currently closed to the public although it was open for a short while today to let people play in the snow! The picture above was captured this morning before the snowblowers had cleared the road to the summit. It's from a webcam on the CFHT pointing towards Gemini, the UH 88-inch and UKIRT.

More snow is forecast for Sunday - just as I'm scheduled to go back up!

Surprise at the office

I drove down from the mountain and popped into the office to pick up my mail before going home and found these on my desk. I can't remember the last time someone sent me flowers! Anyway, it made my day.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

No observing tonight!

After witnessing some beautiful sunsets over the last three days, there's no chance of anyone witnessing the same thing this evening! I woke up at around 1pm this afternoon, opened the curtains in my dorm room to be met with a flash of lightning and a few seconds later a tremendous clap of thunder. Then it started to rain.

It was obvious last night with the high winds and freezing fog that a storm was on the way although the forecast didn't sound too severe. Today, however, the island is being hit with thunderstorms, heavy rain, and at the summit of Mauna Kea, snowfall. Given the infrared image from the GOES-West satellite above, we might get quite a lot of snow overnight!

The snow started to fall at the summit at around lunchtime today and has been captured on some of the summit webcams which aren't iced over. To the left is a webcam image from the NASA IRTF pointed towards the observatory itself. Ice is forming around the camera lense but fortunately the centre of the lense is still relatively clear. Another IRTF webcam shows a view towards the northwest, a view of Kohala if you could see through the fog and clouds. These images were captured at around 5pm local time and by then most of the various summit crews, if not all, would have abandoned the summit. The single road to the summit can quickly become impassable and the summit is the last place anyone would want to be trapped.

Another view of the summit conditions was captured by the UKIRT webcam. This shows the road up to the summit ridge (and incidentally, where the tourists were pictured in "Tourist industry in decline?" a couple of days ago) and is one of the places where ice forms very quickly, so it's monitored carefully in bad weather.

The type of storm hitting the islands is known as a "Kona Low"; a system of low pressure sits to the north or northwest of the islands and sucks up tropical moisture from the south, often resulting in flooding rains. In fact Ohau was hit badly last night, some places received rainfall rates of 3 to 4 inches per hour (try and imagine that!). It looks as though Oahu is about to be hit again judging by the satellite image as well as the Kona (west) side of the Big Island. Even on the east side it might get bad, I can hear thunder nearby.

I'm off the mountain now for a short break and will head up again to HP on Sunday and the summit on Monday. Assuming there'll be access to the summit, I hope to take a few shots of Mauna Kea covered in snow!

PS. Both Andrew and John have been reporting on the storm as well, here, here and here.

PPS. Brad also has a view on the storm. I knew he had a blog, I just couldn't remember what it was called! Welcome to my friends' blogroll, Brad!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Baby lenticulars

After a fine Vacation Resort Hale Pohaku dinner I headed back to the dormitory to pick up my stuff for tonight's shift at the telescope. The forecast for the mountain wasn't great but certainly better than the previous two nights, but the clouds over neighbouring Mauna Loa caught my eye. Was this a lenticular cloud being formed? I took a quick picture outside the dorm to compare with the view from the summit later, because I wasn't sure if my eyes were playing tricks and it was simply regular cirrus. The summit forecast was for 15-25 mph winds and you need high winds to form lenticular clouds, so I was sceptical.

At the summit, however, I was a little more convinced. The temperature was -3 degrees Celsius with winds of 40 mph (that's a windchill of about -13 degrees C or 8 degrees Fahrenheit). At least the forecast had the wind direction correct! A small lenticular cloud had formed just east of Mauna Loa's summit along with a baby one further to the east.

Just to the east of our position on Mauna Kea was another baby lenticular caused by the winds that were trying to blow me off the summit (it was gusting to 50 mph now). The nearly-full moon just happened to be close by as well.

I'm writing this from a warm control room although ice is forming outside rapidly and we may not be able to stay long if road conditions become dangerous. As you might expect we're closed due to freezing fog and high winds. Outside is no place to be right now! Even at sunset it was very uncomfortable and I'm sure many of the tourists weren't expecting conditions like this, so as soon as the sun had set, the procession started back down to warmer conditions.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Tourist industry in decline?

The number of tourists visiting the Hawaiian islands had dropped dramatically over the last few months due to the dire economy and higher than usual airfares. I think only Kaui`i has seen tourist numbers rise or at least stay the same. This is, of course, bad news for the state as tourism is the largest industry.

On the other hand, the number of tourists that visit the summit of Mauna Kea seems to keep growing. I have no numbers to quote, only a subjective observation of the number of people and tour vans here each evening. This is a tuesday night and numbers are what I'm sure we used to get at the weekends. Now the summit is literally swarming with tourists on a Saturday and Sunday. I wonder how shares in those tour companies are doing?

One of the best sunset viewing spots is in the picture below, between the UKIRT and the new training telescope for students at the University of Hawai`i. The visitors and vans are silhouetted against the clouds thousands of feet below us as the sun sinks behind a distant cumulus cloud.

A few minutes later, the clouds turn from orange to a vivid red and it's time to see if there's a hole big enough in the cloud layer for us to do a little work through.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Prospects poor, nice sunset

The first night of our planned instrument engineering/commissioning is not going to go well I feel. The sky was covered with thick cirrus on the drive to the summit and the satellite images are showing even thicker clouds on the way. There is some closed-dome testing we can do but it will be a short night. We're currently trying to acquire a 5th magnitude star which should literally be burning a hole in the detector's array, but we can hardly see it.

The sunset was beautiful although I didn't have much time to take photos this evening.