Thursday, 9 December 2010

A few words on good and bad timing

A few weeks ago the weather on Mauna Kea was as benign as it comes. The winter seemed a long way away and so did my planned date of switching to remote operations on 13th December. Well, that day is almost upon us, just a nice relaxing weekend (yeah, right) to come after what I suspect will be a rather busy day tomorrow.

Right now, it seems I couldn't have picked a worse time. Of course I didn't know that so many weeks ago, but there was always the risk that the winter weather on Mauna Kea would have a say - and it seems it might just do that. Unfortunately, making changes as large and complicated as the switch to remote operations isn't something you can do in a day or two, it needs months of planning and work so you have to pick a date which is realistic in your mind and then stick to it. It's not just local staff that are affected by this, but we also have to plan for observers coming from around the world (or not, as the term "remote observing" would suggest) so we can't just plan this at the last minute. Nor could we choose another time of year to do this due to funding and scheduling constraints. Nevertheless, I chose 13th December - at least it's not a Friday!

Unfortunately, in the last few days, it's become apparent that a major winter storm is about to arrive and at the time of writing has already hit the western most island of Kauai. This evening I've seen reports of possible tornadoes on that island to go along with the severe thunderstorms it and the waters around the island have suffered. The bad news for us is the weather is heading our way...

The summary above is from the MKWC. Whenever you see bars at the top it's usually bad news. When they are red it's really bad news, and if you see them during winter it usually means snow and ice.

From the same site, this is an infrared satellite view of the islands. Deep red means severe weather (usually thunderstorms) and is heading down the island chain.

So I'm on the mountain early next week for the transition to remote observing. This isn't the idea in general, I'm only there in case things go wrong on our first couple of nights and we need intervention from someone on the mountain (which I'm not expecting, but I'd be foolhardy not to allow for the possibility). Then again, maybe we'll need someone up there to start clearing the snow.

This wouldn't be the first time we've commissioned a new mode at UKIRT in the most difficult conditions and circumstances, in fact we seem to make a habit of it! Many years ago I commissioned an instrument called MICHELLE at UKIRT and for some reason we decided that the first science run, with a visiting observer, would be mid-infrared spectropolarimetry. Believe me when I say there are few observing techniques from a ground-based observatory harder than this and to do this on your very first night with a new instrument?

Anyway, please wish us luck. This is a huge change for us and although I'm confident things will be OK the weather may well scupper initial commissioning and then we'll be in a most interesting situation!


Anonymous said...

Yeah, the storm hit us in Honolulu around 11 pm last night. Had to close all the windows, as the fax machine, telephone, and furniture were getting wet. Waiting til dawn to see the destruction outside.

Thunder and lightening are exciting, eh? lol.

Anonymous said...

flurries at the summit through tonight. There is also a possibility for widespread thunderstorms and heavy snow at the summit particularly through midnight. The upper-half of the air mass is expected to dry out, but the inversion will remain weak/elevated near 13 thousand feet, which may allow more fog and ice to develop at the summit and keep humidity rather high through Monday night. The risk for moisture at the summit will subside as the inversion finally rebuilds near 6 thousand feet on Tuesday. Extensive daytime clouds are expected through Monday, but should taper again on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Bad? :(
Hope things go well; sending good thoughts