Saturday, 13 September 2008

Mauna Kea

I thought it might be appropriate for my very first blog entry to be about the unique, beautiful and yet often thoroughly unpleasant place I find myself on more than the odd occasion. Unique in that there are few 14,000 ft volcanoes in the middle of oceans that actually have a thriving industry on top of them, beautiful in that the views are indescribably wonderful and thoroughly unpleasant due to the cold, high winds and more than anything else, the lack of oxygen that would have anyone experiencing the same oxygen blood levels at sea level on medication and a medically prescribed oxygen supply.

The English translation of Mauna Kea is "White Mountain". The "white" refers to the snow that falls every winter and coats much of the summit for several months. Yes, it does snow in Hawai`i and there's often enough of it to attract skiers, snowboarders and the locals who drive to the summit each year, shovel snow into their pickups, drive back to sea level and build snowmen in their backyards. It's always quite a sight to see these guys driving down from the summit as we drive up to work, their pickup suspensions straining under several hundred pounds of snow (and often very well-built Hawaiians in the back in shorts and t-shirts). It's a tremendous effort given that the snowmen will likely not last long in the 80+ degree temperatures at sea level...

The summit area hosts twelve astronomical observatories, more on those in another post and the reasons they are there in the first place. The list includes the giant Kecks, Subaru, CFHT, Gemini, UKIRT, JCMT, the NASA IRTF, CSO and the SMA.

Mauna Kea itself is a dormant volcano which last erupted something like 4,500 years ago. It's likely to erupt again in the future although the people who work there and those that take a break from the beaches and visit the summit are likely to get some advance warning of another eruption. That's what we've been told, anyway.

The summit is an oxygen-deprived 13,796-feet above sea level (4,205 metres) which ought to give you a great view of all that surrounds the mountain, but usually clouds prevent the rest of the island being seen although often around dawn the low-level clouds have dissapated enough for those at the summit to get a glimpse of the coastline - it's only then you realise how high you are!

I thought I'd at least try and learn how to post pictures here, so put in a couple of examples of my very poor photography. I hope to improve. The picture at the top was taken from the so-called summit ridge, the highest point on the mountain with observatories. From left to right you can see Subaru, the twin Kecks and the NASA IRTF. It was a rare day when I took the photo (many years ago!) as you can see the north coast of the Big Island (Kohala) and beyond that in the distance the summit of Haleakala on Maui. I've never seen any of the other islands from the summit and am not even sure it's possible. I keep looking though.

The picture below was taken from the Gemini observatory close to sunset looking roughly south-west. The telescope you can see is the UKIRT opening up before sunset in order to cool the dome by allowing warm air to escape before observing starts. Those people hanging around outside are a small subset of the hundreds of tourists that visit the summit every day eager to see one of the most amazing sights in the world, a sunset from Mauna Kea.


alice said...

Very nice! I'm fascinated already! Welcome to the blogosphere!

Tom said...

Thank you for those kind words, Alice. This is all very new to me but hopefully I can write a few interesting entries about life as an astronomer in Hawaii!