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).

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

Follow the Mauna Protectors on Instagram Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu 

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

References

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 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/  

Top 5 must-see sights on the Big Island

Two Steps Horizon Guest House Big Island Hawaii
Two Steps [Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

1. Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay & Two Steps

Snorkel both or just one – both are fantastic. Kealakekua Bay is one of the best places to snorkel in Hawaii. An easy drive from Horizon Guest House to either hike down to the Captain Cook monument and snorkel, or make a day of it on a commercial boat such as the Fair Wind snorkel cruise.

Just arrived and want to get in the water straight away? Two Steps is only minutes from Horizon Guest House. We have snorkels and masks on hand for you to use and you’ll be swimming with yellow tangs in no time.

Easy for beginners Two Steps is so-named because of the natural rock steps used to access the water.

Place of Refuge Big Island Horizon Guest House Kona
Place of Refuge [Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Tip: Don’t forget to visit Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (translated as Place of Refuge) on the left side of the bay.

2. Volcanoes National Park

Less than 1.5 hours away Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the world, including the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Volcano Big Island Hawaii Horizon B&B
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

We recommend you make the visitor center your first stop on arrival to find out how active the volcanoes are and for the latest tips on the best vantage point. Whether it’s a crater rim drive and a stop at the Jagger Museum, or a serious hike on the newly re-opened (July 2019) trail in the Napau Crater area, there’s a lot to see and plenty happening at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Tip: Get there early and do the summit tour before 10am or after 3pm to avoid the crowds.

3. Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea Big lsland Hawaii Horizon Guest House Captain Cook
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Go any time of day but to really experience the wonder of Mauna Kea it’s best to time your visit at dusk to enjoy the amazing sunset and then, on a clear night, the starry night sky! You’ll need to stop at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 ft. to not only check the status of the summit but most importantly to adjust to the change in altitude – that’s right, being able to drive from sea level to the summit at 14,000 ft. in 2 hours means it’s important to acclimatize.

Make sure you allow enough time to get there – check with Clem on the timing and how to work it in to your day out – the summit opens half an hour before sunrise and closes half an hour after sunset. A stop to stargaze at the Visitor Information Station is a must – local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes outside of the station. Everyone gets the chance to use them for free.

Tip: Don’t forget your jacket! It gets cold up there, so warm clothes are a must – we have jackets on hand if you need one.

4. Waipi’o Valley

They filmed the end of the movie Waterworld here and when you visit it’ll feel like stepping into another world. Meaning curved water in Hawaiian, Waipi’o Valley is a magical place which can be enjoyed from the jaw-dropping scenic lookout or you can explore the valley on foot, or with a guided tour.

Waipi'o Valley Big Island Horizon Guest House
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Hike into the valley and down to the black sand beach and back in less than seven miles. For the more adventurous try the Muliwai Trail on the other side of the valley – you’ll need to camp out for this one.

Whether it’s the wild horses, pristine waterfalls, or the wild black sand beach, it’s worth making Waipi’o Valley a stop on your Big Island itinerary.

Tip: Parking is fairly limited, so either come early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowd.

 

5. Hāpuna Beach

Hapuna Beach Big Island Hawaii Horizon Guest House
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

White sand beach, turquoise water – it’s the quintessential Hawaiian beach and it’s here on the Big Island. An easy drive from Horizon Guest House Hāpuna beach is half a mile long, often sun-drenched, and is shaded with trees and a picnic pavilion.

Tip: Arrive early to find a good park and a shaded spot on the beach.

5 ½. Circle the Big Island

So we cheated – just a tiny bit. It’s hard to squeeze the best into a top 5 and your trip to the Big Island wouldn’t be complete without a road trip around the island. Check with Clem on his itinerary recommendations and how to make it work best with your stay.

To make a booking click the Book Now button below or phone us on 808 938 7822

Top of The World

One of the most interesting things about the Big Island is the diversity of geology. Drove up to the top of Mauna Kea [13,800′] the other day to enjoy a sunset and then spend some time at the visitor’s center and their wonderful presentation of the night sky. Numerous telescope are set up and a University of Hawaii student presents that night’s events.

The photo is looking west towards the Keck and Subaru telescopes with the Gemini, silver domed telescope to the right. The tip of Maui is just barely visible in the distance.

Ready to book? Click the book now button below to make a reservation.