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December 2004

 Mauna Kea: Ka piko o Hawai`i

By Rochelle delaCruz

For native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is not merely the tallest mountain in Hawai`i; Mauna Kea is the piko: the umbilical cord; the summit. The mountain is a sacred place and its many land features are named for gods and goddesses. The most familiar names are Poli`ahu, connected to white and snow and the resulting water, and Wākea, from whom Hawaiians are descended. In old Hawaiian tradition, parents bury the piko once it has fallen off the new-born to connect it to Wākea, and there are still families today who journey up to Mauna Kea to bury their newborn’s piko to make that connection. Near the summit is Lake Waiau which is the source of water for the entire island, and there are those who still journey to Waiau for spiritual purposes.

There are now thirteen observatories on Mauna Kea, and in the past thirty years since the establishment of the first one, many native Hawaiians feel that the sacred mountain has been desecrated. Before the telescopes arrived, gazing upon the visually perfect mountain brought peace and happiness that comes from enjoying nature’s most sublime form. But now as we look at the outline of Mauna Kea against the brilliant blue sky, we can see with the naked eye, the bulbous observatories on top which many local people refer to as “pimples.”

But much has happened to Mauna Kea that cannot be seen. Since the first telescope was built thirty years ago, hazardous materials and human wastes have been deposited into the ground at the summit, which has serious consequences to the environment and to the principal aquifer for the island. And neither the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) nor the Department of Health has kept any record of these activities at the summit.

In addition, Mauna Kea is home to a dozen known species of summit arthropods that are endemic – found nowhere else on this planet. But all of the summit’s plants and animals are fragile and threatened with extinction from the negative impact of the continuous construction of observatories.

Star-gazing has always been an important part of Hawaiian culture, one that allowed the ancestors to voyage across oceans. But it is also integrated into a metaphysical intimacy with nature that manifests itself in aloha and mālama.

The protest by Hawaiians over the desecration of Mauna Kea is an urgent reminder that we must respect and protect this planet even as we search for others.


December 2004

Plan for a Balanced Future for Mauna Kea

By Arnold Hiura

An ancient Hawaiian phrase calls it Ka Piko Kaulana o Ka ‘Aina (The Famous Summit of the Land). So special is Mauna Kea that those who are closest to it are passionate about their beliefs and feelings for the revered mountain. Mauna Kea is – at once – one of the premiere locations on earth for astronomy; one of the most sacred places in all of Polynesia, one of the most unique natural environments in the world … and more.

The construction of some 13 observatories on Mauna Kea over the past three decades has led to growing concerns and unhappiness on the part of Hawaiian people and environmentalists who believe such development has desecrated the mountain’s sacred landscape and fragile ecosystem.

In response to mounting public criticism, the University of Hawai‘i (UH), leaseholder of the summit lands, created and adopted a new Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan (Master Plan) in 2000. One of the key components of the new Master Plan was to create local management entities on the island of Hawai‘i under UH Hilo. Key amongst them is the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM), which serves as the primary management entity responsible for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, summit road, and Hale Pohaku complex. OMKM’s chief responsibilities include:

• Preserving and protecting cultural and natural resources;

• Developing programs for Hawaiian culture, environment, education and public safety;

• Ensuring public participation and input in the management of Mauna Kea.

As stipulated by the Master Plan, management issues are also weighed by a seven-member Mauna Kea Management Board (MKMB), comprised of individuals from Hawai‘i Island representing key areas of interest, including Hawaiian culture, environment, education, land management, community, astronomy, and commercial operations. The MKMB advises the OMKM and the UH-Hilo Chancellor on matters relating to Mauna Kea.

A nine-member Kahu Ku Mauna Council also plays a key role in advising the MKMB, OMKM and UH-Hilo Chancellor on Hawaiian cultural matters. Kahu Ku Mauna reviews and provides input on projects proposed for Mauna Kea and helps to develop Hawaiian cultural programs, including programs for education, protection and preservation.

Shortly after being formed, the three entities collectively forged the following mission statement:

Achieve harmony, balance and trust in the sustainable management and stewardship of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve through community involvement and programs that protect, preserve and enhance the natural, cultural and recreational resources of Mauna Kea while providing a world-class center dedicated to education, research and astronomy.

One of the biggest steps taken towards fulfilling this mission has been OMKM’s establishment of a full-time Mauna Kea Ranger Corps to monitor activities on the mountain. Mauna Kea Rangers are on duty daily to address issues of public safety and conduct, as well as to educate visitors of the cultural, environmental and scientific resources on Mauna Kea.

The OMKM, MKMB and Kahu Ku Mauna Council meet regularly to discuss issues affecting Mauna Kea , including a stringent new review process for projects proposed for the summit. OMKM Director Bill Stormont states, “OMKM has done and will continue to do everything within its authority and power to preserve and protect the cultural and environmental resources of Mauna Kea . That is its charge, and OMKM takes that charge very seriously. While one cannot simply undo 30 years of past practices overnight, OMKM believes that – given its relatively brief existence – it has taken positive strides to protect Mauna Kea ’s unique and precious resources.”
For more information concerning the work of OMKM, contact the office at (808) 933-0734. Additional information is also available via the website: www.malamamaunakea.org.

Arnold Hiura is a member of the Mauna Kea Management Board and a founding editor of the Hawaii Herald, a newspaper for the Japanese community in Hawai`i.


December 2004


Astronomy in Hawai`i

By Walter Steiger

The early Polynesian navigators were the scientists and astronomers of their day. Such a description is borne out by their curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon and their ingenious development of the technology to explore the vast reaches of the Pacific. This technology encompassed not only the skills of creating the double-hulled sailing canoes but also the means of finding their way about the seemingly trackless ocean. Way-finding was accomplished primarily by knowledge of the stars, their motions across the sky and their changing positions depending on latitude. These skills allowed them to discover and populate a vast area of the Pacific we call today the Polynesian Triangle: from Tahiti to Hawai`i to Easter Island.

When Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai`i in 1778, he brought new technologies of both ocean-going vessels and navigational techniques: telescopes and compasses and sextants. By the time the missionaries arrived in 1819 and began the development of a written Hawaiian language, either the ancient sea-faring knowledge had already been lost or the missionaries didn’t know enough to ask about the hundreds of names for stars and other features of the sky that the Hawaiians must have had.

King Kalākaua and the citizens of Honolulu were quite impressed by an astronomical expedition to Hawai`i in 1874 that came all the way from England to observe a transit of Venus: a passage of Venus in front of the Sun. A compound along Fort Street in Honolulu was set aside for placing various telescopes to observe the phenomenon. Later, in his travels to the US, King Kalākaua visited the Lick Observatory in California and expressed his feeling that one day Hawai`i should have such a telescope. Kalākaua, the “Merrie Monarch” who revived many Hawaiian traditions, was also very forward looking and eager to bring Hawai`i into the modern world. But it was not until 1910 that an astronomical observatory was first established in Hawai`i , developed for the specific purpose of viewing the predicted coming of Comet Halley. Located in what is today Kaimukī, on a hill along Seaview Avenue, it was not a very good telescope and in 1958, it was razed before the termites did it in.

Modern-day astronomy got its start with the advent in 1957-58 of the International Geophysical Year and the need for observations of the Sun. This led to the construction of a solar observatory at Makapu`u Point on O`ahu as a part of a world-wide network of solar observations. During this period, the University of Hawai`i developed plans for a permanent world-class solar observatory on Haleakalā on Maui. A high altitude site was a requisite for studying the faint glow of the corona which normally could be seen only during a total solar eclipse. This observatory, named the Mees Solar Observatory, was completed in 1961.

It was during the final construction phase of the Haleakalā observatory that an astronomer from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, took an interest in the astronomical potential of Hawai`i’s high mountains. He was Dr. Gerard Kuiper, a world-renowned planetary astronomer who was interested in the possibility of establishing a planetary observatory in Hawai`i and responding to an invitation by the Hilo Chamber of Commerce. His evaluation of Haleakalā showed that to be an excellent site, but studies on Mauna Kea supported the possibility that it was even better. A grant from Governor Burns made possible the bulldozing of a road to the summit. Kuiper’s site testing led him to declare that Mauna Kea was probably the best site in the world for astronomical studies. The high altitude of the mountain (almost 14,000 ft.), its isolation in the middle of the Pacific and its freedom from light contamination were among the factors that contributed to the perfection of the mountain.

Dr. Kuiper proceeded to apply to NASA for funds to build an observatory on Mauna Kea. NASA however, thought that it should consider proposals from other interested organizations, among which were Harvard University and the University of Hawai`i . The outcome was that the University of Hawai`i’s proposal was awarded the grant to construct an 88-inch (2.2 meters) telescope on the mountain. It was completed in 1970. The knowledge of Mauna Kea’s outstanding qualities as an observation site spread like wild fire among the astronomical community and within a few years several more telescopes were constructed on the mountain. Today there are some 13 telescopes on the mountain, constituting the world’s largest array of astronomical telescopes at the world’s best site for exploring the vast Universe!

Legend has it that the ancient Polynesian navigators looked upon Mauna Kea as a beacon guiding their voyages of discovery. Today Mauna Kea is again a beacon guiding the modern explorers to discoveries beyond the celestial horizon.

Dr. Walter Steiger is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawai`i and lives in Hilo. He established the first University research telescope for studies of the Sun at Makapu`u Point on O`ahu in 1957, followed by a Solar Observatory in 1961 on Haleakalā. From there began the development of astronomy on Mauna Kea. See his story on the web at www.ifa.hawaii.edu/users/steiger.

For additional stories about the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center, please see Hawai`i News January 2005 and Hawai`i News April 2006.

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