It’s news when the first winter snow falls on Mauna Kea—news because it’s not always snowy up there.
But an intriguing new book on the volcano’s sister mountain, Mauna Loa, suggested that as little as 200 years ago, it WAS always snowy up there.
(Image: Winter snow on Mauna Kea, February 1971. Credit: Donald A. Swanson, USGS.)
Mauna Loa and the Mauna Loa Observatory get credit for being major players in the understanding of climate change, but Mauna Kea may also have a role to play.
During the lifetime of Kamehameha I, according to one of Kamehameha’s confidants, Mauna Kea was perpetually covered with snow. In this period before the Industrial Revolution and the dumping of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere, this little bit of Hawaiian anecdotal history would suggest the climate was, indeed, cooler.
The book, by Forrest M. Mims III, is Hawai`i’s Mauna Loa Observatory: Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere, just published by the University of Hawai`i Press. Mims, a prolific technology writer, is the co-founder of the firm that developed the Altair 8800, the first kit microcomputer. Bill Gates helped write the software that ran it; Steve Jobs cut his teeth on it as Apple was being developed.
Mims writes a detailed history of the mountain and of the observatory that made it famous in climate circles. It was there, up on the shoulder of Mauna Loa, that Charles David Keeling began in 1958 taking measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The record of those continuing measurements, known as the Keeling Curve, show the steady and continuing buildup of CO2, largely the result of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels.
Keeling was just one of many brilliant scientists who used the unique site for atmospheric and other research, and the book covers all of them in a readable way that puts meat on the bones of one of Hawai`i’s premier scientific research sites—one of worldwide importance.
But a little piece of information early in the book is both interesting and telling. In the early 1800s, when explorer-scientists were still bleeding from lava cuts, puking from elevation sickness and generally risking their lives to climb these mountains, one of the researchers in the Islands was the Scottish botanist James Macrae, who arrived in 1825 with Lord Byron on the HMS Blonde.
Macrae never climbed the mountains, but reports, almost as an afterthought, a conversation with old-timer John Young: “During the 26 years that Mr. Young has been on the island, he has never seen Mouna Kaah (Mauna Kea) free from snow, but has not seen snow on Mouna Roah (Mauna Loa) in summer, and on this he bases his theory of the greater height of Mouna Kaah.”
John Young was left on Hawai`i by the British ship Eleanora in 1790. An exceedingly important Western advisor to Kamehameha, Young was known to Hawaiians as Olohana. He built ships for the king, and commanded the king’s cannons during war. He later became Kamehameha’s governor of Hawai`i Island.
Macrae was on the Big Island in May, and reported in his diary that he clearly saw snow on Mauna Kea. While Macrae was more interested in the snow as an indication of elevation, Mims recognized that the report was “an intriguing observation about the climate of Hawai’i two centuries ago.”
The late 1700s and early 1800s were the tail end of a climate period commonly known as the Little Ice Age. And the perpetual snow also accounts, of course, for the name: Mauna Kea, White Mountain.
For more on Mauna Kea, see the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory page on the mountain.
For more on Mims’ book, see this University of Hawai`i Press site.
The publisher writes: “Hawai‘i’s Mauna Loa Observatory should be read by atmospheric science students to gain an appreciation for the enormous effort required to generate high quality data. Much more than a strict scientific biography of Mauna Loa, this work will also be appreciated by anyone interested in a highly accessible history of the human side of atmospheric observations at a remote, high-altitude observatory.”
© Jan TenBruggencate 2012