Friday, 10 April 2009

We came, we saw, we evacuated

Inclement weather at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai`i continues. Yesterday evening our telescope operator, a couple of visiting observers and I ventured up to the summit at 5:30pm in the hope of at least checking the dome, getting in a little bit of training (this was one of the observer's first visit to Mauna Kea - welcome to Hawai`i!) and getting a brief glimpse of the sunset.

Well, we didn't really get any of those done as the weather was appalling. We drove the "scenic" route as we like to call it, it takes us past all the telescopes on the summit, but we could hardly see any of them until we were right next to them. Thick fog, high winds and snow made for almost white-out conditions. We described it as blizzard-like in the night log because that was the most appropriate description.

The road was already covered in thin ice and the snow was starting to form drifts. It was clear we'd have to evacuate almost immediately or risk the road becoming impassible leaving us trapped at the summit. That's not a pleasant thought. The weather was so bad there wasn't even a chance of taking a photo outside, standing upright in those cold winds was difficult enough without holding a camera steady as well. Believe me, anyone stuck up there without the right gear or access to shelter (i.e., the observatories) would have been unlikely to survive the night.

So we came down almost immediately. The forecast is for these conditions to continue for another day or two at least and today the Mauna Kea rangers reported large 5-foot drifts in some places, ice on the road and heavy snowfall, so the road was closed. The snowfall was so heavy that the snow-clearing crew were beaten into submission, snow was accumulating faster than they could clear it!

Since I couldn't take any pictures I've used a webcam picture of the summit taken late this afternoon at UKIRT. It was the clearest view of all the summit webcams but doesn't give justice to the conditions. The high winds were blowing all the snow off the road at this section but piling it against other sections not visible in the shot. It really is not a place to be at the moment.

In the meantime, happy Easter everyone and give a thought to the Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services (MKSS) snow-clearing crew. They will be up again on Easter Saturday trying to clear the road. I don't envy them.


Beep said...

Happy Easter to you, as well. So glad you all got back down safely.

Keera Ann Fox said...

My. Goodness.

Is this normal for April in those parts?

Tom said...

Keera - April isn't usually too bad, this is the worst I remember. Of course that's subjective, but looking back at the same dates for the last 3 or 4 years shows this month has been terrible: almost 90% of observing time lost to weather. That's very unusual.

Tonight the sky is clear but the humidity is so high we can't open. My bet is Sunday night will be good! The night after a storm has finally passed is often superb.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Never thought about that - the night after a storm. I guess because after a storm passes here, it goes back to regular crappy weather. ;-)

Tom said...

You know, Keera, I think I'm going to research this a little more scientifically. It's "common knowledge" that once a storm passes here the conditions are wonderful for astronomy, but now I think I'm going to see if that's really the case. There might be a paper in it and if so I'm sure you'll be acknowledged!

So far all the storms here this winter have been followed by crappy weather!

Keera Ann Fox said...

Yabbut, what if it's true for you astronomers because your collective optimism makes it so? You don't want to jinx that, do you? (Or will you just acknowledge my part in that, too? ;-) )