One of my favorite photos of the year, taken in the first few days of the year.
Today marks the beginning of winter. While snow and ice can appear on the summit of Mauna Kea any time during the year, the most severe weather usually occurs during winter storms. We all look forward to the beautiful sight of Mauna Kea with her white coat. Of course this comes at a price, days of difficult access to the summit facilities, or no access at all. The loss of observing nights due to ice and clouds is most common from January to March.
A great deal of mythology swirls about our mountain. Some of it may be true, much is probably not as wishful thinking and reality collide on the summit. The current debates have moved every little detail into the light.
One of the claims I have heard repeated a few times recently is that in the past Mauna Kea always had snow, even in summer, making the name “White Mountain” very applicable.
I had my doubts about this. Whenever these questions arise it is important to check the records. Fortunately this has already been completed for us… Norbert Schorghofer, Elianna Kantar, and M. Puakea Nogelmeier at the University of Hawaii combed through the historical records looking for observations of the presence of snow atop Mauna Kea. What they found is that there were any number of records indicating the lack of snow on the mountain.
Follow the link and read the paper, it is a fascinating view into the past of Mauna Kea. Included are excerpts from ships logs and diaries of early visitors to the islands. At the end is a convenient timeline of the accounts covering the first century of written records and a set of three conclusions drawn from this information. The author’s conclusion is clear, Mauna Kea has not featured permanent snow cover any time in the last few centuries.
There was a time when the mountain featured permanent snow and ice fields. During the last ice age, around 12,000-11,000 years ago, there was permanent ice and active glaciers in the summit region. Along the access road there are textbook glacial features to be seen, glacial polish and moraines. This was gone before humans arrived in the islands. What we see today was probably much as it was over the past few centuries, as borne out in the records of the first European voyagers to make it to the islands. Snow may have been more common, but there were certainly periods when no snow was to be seen atop the summit of Mauna Kea.
These historical accounts date from long before human activities had begun dumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We do face an uncertain climate future, warming temperatures may reduce snowfall. The opposite may also be possible, warmer sea surface temperatures may create more precipitation at the summit with heavier snowfall events possible.
The storm appears to be waning now, the satellite shows that much of it has passed the island. Not long ago the snowplow crews let it be known that they would not reach the summit today, try again tomorrow as the storm abates.
I did a bit of a photo survey of the summit using MastCam to check on the summit conditions. Poliʻahu rules Mauna Kea!
The storm continues unabated atop Mauna Kea. Word from the snowplow crews is bad, deep drifts cover the road above the switchbacks. They are stating that it is unlikely our summit crew will be able to access the telescopes today. That will make the second day in a row with no access.
MastCam is still functioning, only half the dome is covered with ice. I have turned the heater on in an attempt to clear what I can. The view it reveals is deeper snow and a lot more ice. The railings on the dome ladders have coatings many inches thick.
The storm is raging at the summit. The wind is howling and freezing fog is coating everything with ice. The webcam images are mostly blocked as ice covers the camera windows, but I can still see out of one side of MastCam towards the Keck 2 dome.
Just received word that our day crew will not attempt the summit, they are leaving HP and headed home. The rangers report snow drifts on the road at fairly low elevations and the snow plow crews will not attempt to clear the roads until the storm abates. Looks like we will lose cooling on some of the instruments as the liquid nitrogen runs out.