A Mid-Summer Snowfall atop Mauna Kea

A snowfall on the summit of Mauna Kea in mid-summer. A very pretty event, always nice to have some white atop the white mountain. It is even a better as a contrast to the very hot weather we have been having down below. Everyone has been commenting on the unusually warm weather, particularly Hilo residents who have suffered through record breaking warm days and near 100% humidity.

Midsummer snow atop Mauna Kea
A midsummer snowfall atop Mauna Kea on July 17th, 2015
The amazing, though somewhat predictable result of this midsummer snow is in the number of people who see this natural event through the window of their own biases. Interpreting the snow as a message or a means to further their adgenda…

I have been raised on Big Island all my life (which is a long time) and I have NEVER heard of it snowing in July, snow in May is the talk of the town, but in July? It is a miracle! Especially with the hot humid temperature breaking records, how did a trough get through? It must be a message from above and Poliahu’s blessings to our Mauna Protectors. Now all we need is the Kamakani to blow all of the existing telescopes away! EO – Anela2 comment on the West Hawaii Today website

I would point out to the comment author that I have photos in my archive of midsummer snows from almost all of the last eight summers. I can not remember a summer that has not featured snow atop the mountain, even if my photo collection is not complete. Snow can happen anytime of the year on the summit of Mauna Kea. Most summer snows are like this one, fairly minor and mostly melted away by the end of the day.

If the TMT goes up, I can be that this type of thing won’t happen anymore. That monstrosity will block the trough’s moving through the island as well as the winds. It will throw everything off. – Shalee Kekawa comment on the West Hawaii Today website

Either this is a good example of Poe’s Law, or the author really believes that, a truly sad state of science literacy. It gets worse…

Is anyone testing the snow for any chemicals sprayed from the sky? – Josephine Keliipio Facebook comment

An astute observer will note this same sort of occurrence whenever something unusual happens. A few volcanic eruptions hit the news within a few days and people are claiming it is a sign of imminent apocalypse. While anyone who pays attention to volcanoes is fully aware that 12-20 volcanoes are erupting at any given time on the planet, the event is nothing unusual. Earthquakes are good for the same phenomena.

This common misconception occurs when a person’s attention is attracted to something they do not normally pay any attention. Without any baseline data stemming from experience, everything seems new and unusual. I have yet to see a name for this phenomena, though I am sure it exists.

With all of the attention paid to Mauna Kea this year, I really expect this sort of thing to happen again… And again… And…

If not TMT, then what?

There are more than a few of us examining our relationship with the mountain. The current controversy has any intelligent person asking hard questions of themselves. And like me, some express their thoughts in words. Hopefully words that resolve some questions. But other times all we have are questions.

The following is a guest post from Chris Stark. Thanks Chris!

A colorful sunset seen from the summit of Mauna Kea

If not TMT, then what?

I work as an IT professional in the astronomy community. For months now, my daily life has been assaulted by the phrase “‘A’ole TMT” scrawled all over people’s homes, vehicles, and businesses — I can’t seem to get away from that phrase. As frustrating as it can be for me to randomly encounter this sentiment, I understand people’s anger, frustration, and feelings of loss of identity. But there’s more at stake here than a telescope on a sacred mountain.

There are as many reasons WHY people oppose TMT as there are people actually opposed — and that is not a slight towards the opposition. Every person’s perspective is unique and personal, no matter whether in support or opposition to TMT. I have my own reasons for supporting TMT, and while they may echo many of the sentiments heard from the other supporters, as with everyone else, my mix of perspectives ends up giving me my own unique angle on all of this.

The reason “‘A’ole TMT” causes me so much frustration is that no one is presenting viable alternatives to TMT. Like it or not, something needs to breathe life into this stagnant, low-wage economy of Hawaii Island. We deserve better than what we currently have. We’re smart, talented, and hard-working. We’ve been through a lot together.

The opponents to TMT say “‘A’ole TMT!”, but to what do they say “‘Ae!”?

Who among us wants to work for an unfair low wage for tedious, mundane work with no room for advancement? Who among us wants our children to have the exact same lack of opportunities we have by choosing to stay in this place we call home?

The upcoming generations of Hawaii Island children are smart and skilled; they have bright futures, and many of them are going to work in technologically advanced fields — and no matter the field, technology has become a major component. The question is, are they going to work in these fields here at home, or are they going work in these fields somewhere else, likely not to return? The more we say “no” without providing an accompanying “yes” alternative, the more we are losing our best and brightest minds to the mainland and foreign countries.

I graduated from a Hawaii Island public high school in the early 1990s, and the vast majority of my friends left this island and now have lives elsewhere with no real motivation to ever return. I’m also of the age now where many of my colleagues have children ranging from primary school all the way to pushing closer to graduation from college and beyond. How many of my colleagues want to see their sons and daughters pack up and leave, never to return? How many of the opposition want to see their sons and daughters pack up and leave?

What is more damaging to the Hawaiian culture: a population working dead-end, slave-wage, jobs with no alternatives? A population thinly dispersed across the world with no physical connection to their homeland or family? Or a telescope on a sacred mountain top whose very goal is to bring heaven closer to earth?

We need the education, work force development, and jobs promised by TMT.

If “no” to TMT, then “yes” to what?

Public Access to Mauna Kea

I think we can agree that the mountain is heavily used, visitor numbers have steadily increased over the past few years. The summit road is busy, particularly as sunset nears, a steady line of vehicles heading for the summit. During the recent discussions on the future of Mauna Kea, many have noted these increased numbers with dismay. Various suggestions have been floated to reduce the numbers of people on the mountain, but there are problems with any changes.

The recent extended closure of the summit road and visitor center has brought this issue into sharp focus. Comments by various parties including Governor Ige and TMT protesters reveal very different visions for access to Mauna Kea.

Watching a Mauna Kea Dawn
A pair of visitors watch dawn atop Mauna Kea
I admit a personal agenda here, I go to the mountain regularly for several different reasons. Sometimes to enjoy the dark skies with a telescope, sometimes leading group excursions for our local astronomy club, other times to simply photograph the beauty of this place. Even though my duties as a an observatory engineer include going to the summit a couple times each week, I find myself in the high country of Mauna Kea regularly for other reasons.

Why are the numbers increasing? Those responsible for caring for our mountain, the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) have done nothing to encourage visitors to the mountain. Actually they often attempt to discourage visitation. The basic legal framework for management of the mountain is the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan1, there is a a sub-plan specifically addressing public use of Mauna Kea. A stated goal in the document is to control visitor numbers.

Public activities will be encouraged at lower elevations in order to limit traffic to the summit region, protect public safety and health, and minimize human impacts on cultural and natural resources. – MKCMP Public Access Plan 1

Continue reading “Public Access to Mauna Kea”

The Ranger Reports

In the lead up to the BLNR meeting the Office of Mauna Kea management released some of the ranger’s and MKVIS staff reports. These document the day to day happenings at the MKVIS and the summit over the last three months since the protests began.

Mauna Kea Protest
Protests on Mauna Kea, June 24, 2015. Photo by Dan Birchall, used with permission.
I knew it to be bad, I had heard about a number of the specific events detailed in these reports. I really did not have a full picture of the occurances, something that these reports make very clear.

Read for yourself… MKSS Rangers and Staff Logs

The reports detail repeated vandalism, some petty thefts, continued harassment of staff and visitors, and repeated and illegal blocking of the road.

Many have declared these reports to be outright lies, claiming that these things never happened. I know better. I know the people who wrote these reports personally. I have breakfast with them routinely in the Hale Pohaku dining room and have listened to them relate these same occurrences. Often the words they used were a little less diplomatic than these written formal reports, the product of frustration and anger. Everything in these reports rings true, down to specific events that were described to me first hand.

Continue reading “The Ranger Reports”

A Conflict of the Sacred

Opponents of astronomy on Mauna Kea often denigrate astronomy in a way that they would find totally objectionable if the same tactics were reversed and directed towards their cause. They repeatedly use words like meaningless, industrial, and claim the observatories exist only for profit. Those who make such claims fail to understand astronomy in much the same way they accuse telescope supporters of failing to understand their beliefs about Mauna Kea.

Sunset Gemini
The Gemini telescope prepares for the night, in the background is the CFHT telescope
They neglect to think that destroying the telescopes atop Mauna Kea would be seen as an act of desecration of enormous magnitude. To millions of people across the world the great telescopes represent something far more than simple buildings and telescopes. They are a concrete symbol for hope, an indication that not all is dismal and lost in this world, that one can still dream.

Each day we watch news of war that leaves cities laid waste, brutal sectarian violence, of economic strife, the wholesale destruction of the environment. When seeing news of people killing each other for no reason beyond minor differences in beliefs, it is so easy to despair that humanity is doomed to a dismal future.

Continue reading “A Conflict of the Sacred”

Dark Secrets

Over the past months I have made a habit of reading opposition websites. Primarily in an effort to understand the cultural objections to astronomy on Mauna Kea. I have actually learned quite a bit, filling in my knowledge of Hawaiian culture and history. But I do learn other things, apparently this controversy has a very dark and secret element.

First Target of the Night
The Keck 2 laser acquires the first target of the night with the glow of sunset behind
There are local opponents who have a legitimate stake in this controversy. We have also seen other causes that have latched on this debate, often as a tool to forwarding their own agenda. Then there are people completely divorced from reality that seem to think that there is something more to the controversy on the mountain…

… was again soundly defeated atop the tallest mountain in the Pacific by native Hawaiians who understand that telescopes & astronomy have virtually nothing to do with the secret government’s attempt to take over the mountain. The secret government wants to use it for scalar military transmitters & to incorporate it into the Army’s Pohakuloa military base, scheduled eventually to become the largest military base in the Pacific. – Facebook posting by Krishna Davinci, chairman of the Bohemian Grove at Illuminati Network

Ummmm… OK.

Aside from some contradictory grammar, it seems that Mr Krishna has taken every conspiracy theory out there and combined them into a wild stew. This is actually quite common, once a person accepts one conspiracy theory, even wilder theories can easily take root. Take a look at his page, there is more, no theory too far fetched… Chemtrails? Check. Planet X Nibiru? Check. President Obama sacrificing babies at satanic ceremonies? Check. The entire page is so far out there I was first convinced it was all an elaborate satire. Does the Facebook feed need a Poe’s Law disclaimer? Unfortunately, the more I read the more I despaired that someone really believes it all.

Scalar military transmitters? I am an electrical engineer and I have no idea what he is talking about. We do have lasers, and those are cool. In all my visits to the other facilities on the summit I have never seen a scalar transmitter.

I have met a few folks and read more than a few Facebook postings that make all sorts of wild accusations of military use of the summit of Mauna Kea. For most of the past decades the amount of military involvement in Mauna Kea astronomy has been pretty much zero. Since Lockheed Martin has joined the partnership running UKIRT this sort of accusation seems to have gained momentum. Never mind that their stated use of the telescope is to track orbital targets and debris. A use that makes complete sense given the capabilities of the telescope and the need for this effort.

Krishna goes on to explain further…

Furthermore, telescopes are now relatively obsolete & primitive … as are rockets. NASA (Never A Straight Answer) continues to publicly promote them to the sheeple with make-believe projects, because NASA is just a cover for the secret government’s REAL space program ~ which now has at least 10 fleets well outside our solar system using antigrav & antimatter propulsion technology ~ not to mention innumerable interplanetary bases on the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter & Saturn … plus several more outside of our solar system. This has been ongoing for over a half century … & publicly hidden from the dumbed-down zombied-out sheeple. – Krishna Davinci

I suppose I am not qualified to cast any judgement here, about a quarter of my salary does come from NASA. On the other hand… Fleets outside our solar system? Bases on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Where the hell do I sign up for a transfer to that assignment? I would love to see Saturn up close! Do you suppose that base is on Hyperion? I have always loved that wild little moon.

If we really had these things the US military would celebrate them… Loudly! Why would you need to keep this all secret? Imagine the PR possibilities. With that sort of military power the need for secrecy would simply become an unnecessary annoyance. Besides, that many fleets and bases would need people to man them, you need to recruit a lot of folks. I can imagine the recruiting posters now.

If I disappear in the next few weeks just assume I got my transfer to the Hyperion moon base. In the meantime I need to head to the summit in order to continue fixing the mind control machine. It has been down for a couple weeks and you can see the trouble that has caused.

Ceres and Aliens

The bright dot on Ceres has the UFO community all a twitter.

The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA
As the Dawn probe approaches Ceres each day brings ever higher resolution photos. The bright dot first showed up as a large white blotch on the disk. Not a huge surprise, even Earth based images showed areas of the dwarf planet were much brighter.

As the spacecraft neared the dot has been revealed to be quite small. Indeed the images are quite intriguing, a very bright dot with a smaller dot directly beside it. The two features are near the center of a fairly large impact crater.

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA
Of course the images are intriguing. Whenever something this odd shows up in a NASA mission image there is a group of folks who go off the rails entirely, the UFO/alien community. I looked at the image and went “Hmmmm?”. Then as I sat for a moment I wondered what the UFO websites were saying about this photo. A quick sampling showed that the UFO/alien community has let speculation run rampant.

The articles and YouTube videos are popping up, fueled by the latest Dawn mission image releases… It is an alien city, a giant spacecraft, and, of course Ceres is a fragment of the destroyed planet Phaeton. After the buzz about the UFO in orbit around asteroid 2004 BL86 the UFO community is ready for something new. Even the British newspaper The Daily Mail has let this “alien” speculation seep into its reporting.

The planetary science community has a more likely theory for the dot, a cryo-volcano. It is known that Ceres harbors a great deal of water. A vent of some sort allowing water to escape into space from a subsurface deposit is not that unlikely. The process would not be that dissimilar to what we have observed on comets. The location of the feature at the center of an impact crater is also interesting. Note that there is another light colored feature at the center of another impact crater on the lower left of the latest image. An older, less active or dormant cryo-volcano?

When looking at the image you have to remember that the surface of most asteroids and comets is actually quite dark, about the same as charcoal. Ceres has a v-band albedo of 0.09, thus only 9% of the sunlight is reflected by the surface. Anything bright white, like fresh ice, is going to be stunningly bright in comparison.

When Dawn arrives at Ceres and settles into orbit we will have our answers, the images should show the phenomena in exquisite detail. We just have to wait a few months. It would be totally cool if the bright dot did turn out to be some sort of alien artifact. But I have to agree with the mission team, it is probably some form of cryo-volcano, also cool.

The Question

Twice in the last week I have gotten The Question. Anyone who works around the public and telescopes will get this one, and you need to be ready to answer it. There is so much history and myth around the subject that the answer can be challenging. For this one, a simple, short answer will not suffice, you need a good, concise and clear response. This is made no easier by the problem that the answer I give is not the one they want to hear.

“Have you ever seen a UFO?”

Day The Earth Stood Still
Scene from Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Of course by UFO they mean some sort of alien spacecraft, visitors from another star or dimension. I have seen things in the sky I didn’t know what they were, unidentified objects. But I have always been able to figure out what they were with a little checking. While the answers are usually interesting they have always been natural or human phenomena.

Note: This article originally posted Dec 13, 2008 on the old Darker View blog.

Take a breath, look the person straight in the eyes, and say it…


I have never seen any evidence of an alien visitor, nor has any of the many, many other astronomers, amateur or professional I know ever mentioned anything to me. We have all seen odd things, but no good evidence for alien visitors.

I am pretty certain there is life out there. Given the sheer odds of hundreds of billions of stars in each major galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies, there are simply too many chances. We now know that there are planets around just about every star, we have discovered over three hundred, and that is just around nearby stars within the reach of our instruments. There is life out there, but complex, intelligent life? That is another level of question.

They are not visiting us.

Most people who ask The Question have no concept of just how big space is, or how difficult travel among the stars would be. We have seen too many episodes of Star Trek, where the next planet is reached after the ad break and warp speed solves all of the problems. If it exists, interstellar travel will be rare and difficult, involving titanic amounts of energy. An alien ship coming into our solar system will not only been seen by every instrument we have, and there are a lot these days, but everyone with a backyard telescope. The sort of energy needed to decelerate would be more than obvious.

I have more than a little trouble with many of the eyewitness accounts, they describe a wild array of craft, all different, yet the same, as if they are just elaborating on previous stories. UFO’s with lots of lights that fly in strange ways, suddenly changing directions like the pilot has just left the bar after a heavy night. Advanced technologies will still obey the laws of physics, intelligent beings will act with purpose, what is so often described does not make any sense at all. Descriptions of little grey men are far too familiar, a head, two eyes, two arms, and two legs… far too much like us. If we ever do meet aliens they will look nothing like us, they will be truly alien.

I don’t base this answer on just circumstantial evidence, but on the lack of any reliable evidence that anything has visited. The concept of alien visitation is too extraordinary, the level of proof required is similarly extraordinary. The burden of proof lies on those that say there are aliens, and so far they have failed in that respect. I have a lot of trouble with the concept of aliens that haunt the boondocks and abduct hapless farmhands. Sorry, just not believable.

Who would I believe?

Not certain about that, but I am not sure I would trust any eyewitness. As any police detective will tell you, the human mind is simply too easy to fool, we are horrible witnesses. I would expect the best possible witness would be those who watch the sky regularly, astronomers and the far more numerous amateur astronomers, a community to which I belong.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, put it very well indeed, his point is one I know well and bears repeating. The amateur astronomy community spends more time under the stars than almost any other group. We keep good optics and cameras handy, if there is anything to be seen, this large group of people would see it.

We don’t.

On any clear night, particularly weekends, there are thousands of amateur astronomers sitting with telescopes under dark skies. We see lots of things, but we know what they are. This community is educated in the many beautiful and arcane phenomena that sky can produce. We make a point to see these things and recognize them for what they are. Flickering planets low on the horizon, aircraft flares, high altitude balloons, the bright flash of a bursting meteor, satellite flares and many more. Those of us who have spent time around civilian aviation, or the military have seen even more.

If you are sure I am wrong… Show me the evidence!

Sorry, bad photos, odd Mayan carvings or unreliable eyewitness accounts don’t do it. Been there, read and seen it. When an alien ship lands on the Ellipse in front of the White House, or some other solid proof is produced I will re-examine my conclusion. But until then…


The Portents of ISON

Comets have long been regarded as omens of extraordinary portent. Novae, eclipses, conjunctions, anything seen in the sky can serve in this role, but bright comets have always held a special awe.

C/2007N3 Lulin
Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin on the morning of 22 Feb 2009
Even today those who seek signs are quick to seize upon any unusual astronomical event. A few months ago it was meteors, events over Chelyabinsk grabbing the attention. With ISON entering the inner solar system the attention shifts.

Bright comets are invariably seen as omens by some. History is littered with stories of comets and prophesies. This has not changed, there are many recent examples… Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake, Elenin, each has been used to make all manner of wild predictions. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON certainly fits the role. It will most likely be quite bright, easily visible without optical aid. It may even be visible in the daytime.

Continue reading “The Portents of ISON”

Going Snorkeling

Normally I do not snorkel around the reef, rather I prefer donning full kit including tank and regulator allowing a more immersive experience. Staying down allows me a freedom of movement, to explore well beyond the twenty five feet or so that I can reach without the gear. Scuba permits me to carry a camera with time to compose a subject and observe behavior.

A Hawaiian Day Octopus or He’e Mauli (Octopus cyanea) in reef shallows at PuakĊ
But on occasion I hit the water with minimal gear, simply mask and fins Sometimes I am accompanying a friend who is not a qualified diver. Perhaps there is no time or allowance for the large amount of gear scuba required and I simply want to swim. Snorkeling is nice this way, taking a long swim is hardly boring when so much is visible just below.

I skim along, the large fins providing effortless speed. The view is different than that of scuba, you are always looking down. I stay in the shallower water where the coral comes close to the surface. On occasion I dip down below the surface to get a closer look, weaving through the coral on long shallow dives. To go up I simply stop swimming to allow my buoyancy to lift me to the surface. A sharp breath clears the snorkel of water. With practice the actions are almost reflex, as natural as breathing on shore.

There are species that prefer the shallows, rarely seen when diving, often common in just a few feet of water. Snowflake morays, the colorful lagoon triggerfish, snorkeling allows spotting of a different reef community. I often make a point to sweep the areas just off the shore in three feet of water or less, just to see what can be found.