Chasing Fogbows

I have been flying a lot in the Saddle over the last few months. It helps that I can simply leave for work early, stop off and blow through some drone batteries, before heading on to Hale Pohaku where I meet the rest of the crew for a day on the summit. The process can be reversed on the way back down the mauna in the evening after work.

On these short days late in the year this means flying right at dawn and sunset, creating very dramatic light. The rich colors are simply great for photography of this beautiful area of lava flows and cinder cones.

What makes the are even more spectacular is the cloud layer. As you drive up the mauna you pass through the clouds. I love to stop and fly right at the top of the cloud layer, where the fog lays in against the mountain. I am sorely disappointed on those mornings that the fog is not there!

The result of these flights is lot of great video, I just need to put something together to share it.

Of course a good video needs great music. I am indebted to Chris Stark, a local artist who graciously allowed me to use his track Dancing in the Rain as the backdrop for the video. I encourage you to head over to his website ChrisStark.com to check out his albums.

Chasing Fogbows from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo

Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves

When two bodies of fluid are moving in different directions interesting things happen at the boundary. The result is usually some sort of wave… Waves on the surface of the ocean or waves in the sky.

Waves on the sea surface are easy to see. Waves in the sky? Not so much. These waves are only betrayed if clouds form in the waves, revealing these structures.

Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves in the Saddle
Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves in the Saddle with Mauna Loa in the background. Photo by Joe Gargiulo, used with permission
This sort of wave is called a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave after Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz who first investigated how these waves form. Yes this is the same Kelvin for whom the units of temperature are named. KH waves are visible all around us for those who know to look, from the surface of our ocean to the clouds of Jupiter, these characteristic swirling patterns are seen.

In the Saddle region over Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, there are usually two air masses moving in different directions. Below the inversion level the tradewinds push westward. While above the inversion level, usually about 6-7,000ft, the upper air moves to the east. Where these two meet there are often KH waves, and occasionally some clouds to outline these fascinating structures.

Snow on the Summits

A gorgeous image released by NASA’s Earth Observatory this week. it features the recent snowfall atop our island’s summits. I suggest you go to the link above, download the 6k x 6k version, then just zoom in and enjoy the detail! (Sorry the full image is bigger than the WordPress size limit to post here)

OLI Hawaii
Recent snowfall atop Hawaiian summits as captured by NASA’s OLI imager aboard Landsat 8 on Dec 25th, 2016

Watching Mauna Loa

Being an inveterate volcano watcher, I have not only been watching the new flow on Kilauea, but keeping a wary eye on Mauna Loa as well. The USGS has steadily been increasing the alert level on this largest of the Hawaiian volcanoes over the last year.

On this unstable rock we live, we get a fair number of earthquakes. Of course not every bump you feel is seismic, sometimes it is just a big truck on the highway. You look on the USGS Recent Earthquakes page anyway, just to see what it was. Not this time, must have been a truck. While I have the page loaded I look about… Wait? What is that cluster on the NW flank of Mauna Loa? I do not remember seeing that before!

For the last year or more there has been a steady cluster of small earthquakes just to the southwest of the main caldera. This notable cluster is usually visible when you stop by the earthquake page and indicates magma motion below the summit. It is a big part of why the USGS has upped the advisory level. The cluster on the west flank looks new to me, a lot of small quakes, some deep, some as shallow as 600m.

I am sure someone over at the USGS is looking at the same cluster and asking the same questions. Maybe they have better answers, but they have not published anything yet. Maybe, like so many times before this cluster will fade away, not to appear again. It is however a reminder that magma is moving down there, the mountain is swelling, someday she will erupt again.

Today I will be driving up and down the mountain. I know I will be looking across the saddle at the looking bulk of Mauna Loa and wondering for the thousandth time. Will I see an eruption from her during my years on island?

HVO Earthquakes 15July2016
HVO earthquake plot for 15July2016

The Most Reviled of Scientific Instruments

Scientific instruments have a habit of presenting us with uncomfortable truths. Galileo’s telescopes showed that our solar system did not conform to the prevailing teachings of the day. The great particle accelerators show a complexity underlying reality that defies a simple explanation of the universe. Likewise an almost forgotten instrument sitting atop a volcano has shown that humans have altered our world in very damaging ways.

NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Observatory
The NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Lab in the light of dawn
I had driven to the top of Mauna Loa for a session of Geminid meteor watching and photography, joining Steve, a local photographer and friend for a cold, beautiful morning atop the mountain. As we were about to leave another friend drove past. Ben used to work with me at Keck and now tends the solar observatory adjacent to the NOAA climate laboratory. Looking at the sky and the drizzling fog that had rolled in with the dawn he noted that it would be a while before he could open the telescope. Instead he offered us a tour.

It was in the main building that we stopped to look at a little instrument parked rather oddly in the hall. Not much, a simple box with a few aluminum tubes and a bit of circuitry and wiring. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a piece of scientific history. Here was the Scripps Carbon Dioxide Analyzer that has provided the data that has changed our relationship with our planet.

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