Winter Comes to Mauna Kea

With the first of December winter arrived on Mauna Kea.

A White Mountain Sunset
A bright coating of fresh snow atop mauna Kea as seen from near Waikoloa, December 1, 2016
It was a proper blizzard, images in the webcams of ice everywhere, blowing snow and accumulating drifts. From the satellite shots and doppler radar the weather was not going the let up anytime soon.

I was scheduled to go up today and arrived in Waimea well before 7am to meet the vehicles. The plan was to spend the day in Keck 2 AO dealing with an optical stage that needed adjustment.

Eric greeted me with an advisory, “If you do not need to go… Don’t”. He had obviously checked the morning reports, something I had not yet done. We pulled up a computer inside and looked at the webcams… Yeah, no need to sit at Hale Pohaku all day waiting for the snowplows. I will stay at HQ for the day, the adjustment can wait.

Only yesterday, in the all staff meetings, we noted the statistics for the last year. Time lost to weather was rather low, notably less than the average amount of nights lost to clouds, snow, or ice. If this is any sign the winter of 2016-2017 may result in a bit more lost time, with a La Nina event cooling the central pacific the odds of snow on the mountain go up significantly.

Our summit crew did not make it to the telescopes, they gave up when the snow plows gave up. After waiting all morning they drove up into the snow, chains on the vehicle. They reported whiteout conditions and 30mph winds. With no one to service the instruments we will begin to lose the cryo and vacuum on LRIS, ESI, and DEIMOS. Recoverable if they make it up tomorrow, if not there will be a few days on a vacuum pump before the instruments can be cooled again, a week out of service.

The heavy snow continued all day. As we watched in the cameras the drifts grew deeper. It may have only been a foot of snow, maybe less, but the wind was moving it around. Some patches are bare, in other places there are drifts several feet deep.

Snow Atop Mauna Kea
Fresh snow turns the top of Mauna Kea white, December 1, 2016
Just before sunset the weather broke over the summit, the clouds opening up to allow views of the snow from Waimea. In the late evening light we were all out enjoying the view. The mountain has a substantial snow cover for the first time in a couple years, something everyone considers special. This may not be the end of it either, the forecast calls for more snow over the next few days and into next week.

As I drove home I used the new bypass road, built in the rangeland just outside the main part of Waimea. There must have been two dozen vehicles stopped along the road, everyone with a camera or cell phone capturing a clear view of the summit snows in the evening light. I stopped two more times before I reached Waikoloa, it was a beautiful evening.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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