What’s going on with Mauna Kea?

Mauna Kea Big Island Hawaii
Photo credit: Marco Garcia / New York Times

The summit of Mauna Kea is a favorite tourist attraction, either to see a spectacular sunrise or sunset, or to stop by the visitors’ center to make use of the free telescopes to view the night sky on clear nights, as well as listen to an informative lecture on the Milky Way, with a guided laser pointer.

However, access to the summit of Mauna Kea has been blocked since July 2019 due to protest action over the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). [Update 03/15/2020  – COVID-19 update. For more details see below].

So, what’s really going on with Mauna Kea? We decided to take a look at what’s happening.

Why is Mauna Kea so special?

Mauna Kea is considered the point of origin of the Hawaiian people. The summit of the mountain was the meeting place of the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wākea. The Hawaiian people are believed to be direct descendents from this union. For this reason Mauna Kea is considered to be sacred (kapu) ground.

View of Milky Way from Hawaii
A panorama of the Milky Way from Mauna Kea. Kilauea Volcano under cloud cover. Photo credit: Joe Marquez

There are many altars (lepa) on the mountain that pay homage to gods and goddesses (akua) as well as other important burial and ceremonial sites. Recently, members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, were involved in building a ceremonial site (lele), with an area for equinox and solstice rituals. These were intended to echo the historical Hawaiian structures used in the same way. In the past these may have been used to measure an astronomical effect called the precession of the equinoxes. This involved understanding the position of the stars in relation to the movement of the earth’s axis. Ancient Hawaiians understood the importance of tracking the position of the stars and how this related to navigation.

Mauna Kea telescopes
From left, the 8-meter Subaru (Japan), the twin 10-meter Keck I and II (California) and the 3-meter NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. Photo credit: Babak Tafreshi / National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

It is also believed that ancient Hawaiians used observation platforms, containing stones marking the positions of the rising and setting stars, on the summit of Mauna Kea.   

It’s important to remember that ancient Hawaiian traditions are interconnected and exist on a continuum. This means that whether it’s oceanic navigation or following the seasons, the Hawaiian people see connections between themselves as fundamentally linked with the connections between the earth and the sky.

Why is the summit of Mauna Kea a good location for telescopes?

The summit of the mountain provides a number of perfect conditions for viewing the stars. It has dry clear air, low temperatures, very little turbulence, great visibility, and low light pollution.

Mauna Kea sunset
Mauna Kea at sunset. Photo credit: Horizon Guest House

What is the history of Mauna Kea?

Mauna Kea has a complicated land use history. It is part-crown land – those lands belonging to the former king of the Hawaiian Kingdom (Kamehameha), and part-conservation lands.

Despite this dual ownership there are currently 13 telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. Telescopes have been a fixture on the summit since the first was constructed in the late 1960s. A large number of these were built without sufficient permits and without the support of the local community. Some of these telescopes are in use while others have been abandoned and remain unused. The removal of some of the abandoned telescopes was a condition of the TMT getting the go-ahead.

The $1.4 billion TMT was first due to be built over four years ago but was delayed by court action. Construction was finally approved in October 2018.

Mauna Kea non optical telescopes
From left, Caltech Submillimeter Observatory; James Clerk Maxwell Telescope; and the Submillimeter Array, consisting of several 6-meter dishes. Photo Credit: Babak Tafreshi / National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

How have the telescopes affected the ecology of Mauna Kea?

The mountain has unique biogeoclimatic zones as well as a freshwater spring that provides water to the Big Island. There have been major concerns over waste management, including the leakage of sewage into the environment from telescope facilities, and mercury spills. These legacy issues were raised prior to the building of new telescopes but have, as yet, not been addressed.

What is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)?

If built, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will be 18 stories high, 9 stories into the ground and cover 5 acres of land. Even though an environmental impact report by the University of Hawai’i declared that the telescope would ‘be the most environmentally sensitive telescope ever built on Mauna Kea’, the protestors believe there is a conflict of interest due to the University’s involvement with the TMT. This has cast significant doubt over the accuracy of the report. The unclear economic motives of some politicians supporting construction of the TMT have also muddied the waters.

New thirty meter telescope Hawaii
Artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Photo credit: TMT Observatory Corporation

Why is the TMT so important?

Once operational, the TMT will be an enormously powerful telescope and will have the ability to image atmospheres on exoplanets and even take images of galaxies as they begin to form.

Protestors Mauna Kea Hawaii
Mauna Kea protestors. Photo Credit: Caleb Jones / Associated Press

When did the protests begin?

In July 2019, after it was announced that construction would begin on the TMT, a small group of protestors set up camp at the base of Mauna Kea and blocked the road to the summit.

Mauna Kea Hawaii Protestors Day Four
Mauna Kea. Day 4. Photo Credit: Hawaii News Now
Mauna Kea Protestors day 117
Mauna Kea. Day 117. Photo credit: Hawaii News Now

The protest site was named a Pu’u Honua (sanctuary) and kapu aloha (a state of love and respect) was instituted. After some initial arrests and publicity, the numbers swelled, and 500 protestors turned into thousands. Currently it’s a self-sustaining community, named Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu (Fuzzy Mountain Sanctuary after the hill facing Mauna Kea) and the protestors consider themselves to be the Mauna Kea protectors.

Can’t they build the TMT somewhere else?

Yes, they can. The TMT project manager has confirmed another location in the Canary Islands would be perfectly acceptable and does not have the same problematic environmental and cultural impacts as the Mauna Kea location.

Mauna Kea Protectors
Mauna Protector Pua Case speaking to the protectors (kia'i). Photo credit: Danielle Da Silva

What happens next?

The situation remains a stand-off, with more court action pending. The best solution is to work to preserve Hawaiian culture, rather than to neglect it, and locate the telescope in a much less contentious location. Perhaps the issues raised by this protest can result in a plan of action to undo some of the damage that has already occurred on the summit. 

Mauna Kea is a precious part of Hawaiian culture. Recognition of its importance is key to the preservation and protection of the summit for future generations.

Mauna Kea protest child
Mauna Kea. Photo credit: Danielle Da Silva

What can you do?

Sign the change petition calling for an immediate halt to the construction of the TMT here

Find out more about the Mauna Protectors www.puuhuluhulu.com and follow them on Instagram Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu 


March, 2020. On March 15 the visitor center closed due to COVID-19. The mountain remains open to the public.

November, 2019A work permit has been issued that allows the TMT partners to build the TMT in the Canary Islands. However, no decision has been made and the Mauna Kea site remains their preferred option.

December, 2019. As of Saturday 28th December the summit road to Mauna Kea is now open. The Mauna Kea protectors agreed to allow access after Mayor Harry Kim assured them that the TMT would not begin construction until the end of February. The protectors will continue to occupy the adjacent land. At this stage protest action is likely to resume beyond February as no resolution as been reached.

And don't forget...

There’s still plenty to enjoy and experience on the Big Island! Make a booking at Horizon B&B and make your stay on the Kona Coast unforgettable. To book now fill out our reservation request form (click the Book Now button below) or call us on 808 938 7822


Brestovansky, M. (2019). TMT, Canary Islands Reach Land Agreement. Retrieved from https://www.westhawaiitoday.com/2019/11/20/hawaii-news/tmt-canary-islands-reach-land-agreement/

Huth, J.E. (2019). The Thirty Meter Telescope Can Show Us the Universe. But at What Cost? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/opinion/mauna-kea-telescope.html

Richardson, M. (2019). As Promised, TMT Protestors Move Tent Blocking Mauna Kea Access Road. Retrieved from https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/2019/12/28/moving-day-mauna-kea-after-temporary-truce-announced/

Richardson, M. (2019). As Temps Drop at Mauna Kea, Protestors Hunker Down For a Long Winter. Retrieved from https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/2019/11/09/how-encampment-base-mauna-kea-has-changed-over-months/ 

Sanchez, N. (2019). Mauna Kea, What It Is, Why It Is Happening, and Why We All Should Be Paying Attention. Retrieved from https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-08-15/mauna-kea-what-it-is-why-it-is-happening-and-why-we-all-should-be-paying-attention/  

Author: Angus Meek

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