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Story Publication logo March 17, 2017

Between the Earth and the Sky

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On Mauna Kea you can see the stars even on a cloudy night.

Of course, this is mostly due to the fact that, at 13,803 feet above sea level, you are too far above the clouds for them to make much of a difference. The frothy white condensation whipped up from the Pacific Ocean doesn't dare rise higher than the tropical inversion layer that separates the mountain's head from its feet, trapping water vapor, air pollution and other vision-obscuring particulates on the lower slopes. The result is a view from the summit of a night sky so brilliant it becomes difficult to see the constellations for the stars.

If you were to begin your measurements at the sea floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world. Start at sea level and it's no foothill either, earning the title of highest point in the Pacific Ocean. For the wayfinding Polynesian peoples who first traveled to the Island of Hawaii in canoes more than 1,500 years ago, the snow-capped peak towering above the ocean was easily the first thing they saw upon arrival.

"Mauna Kea," an ancient Hawaiian saying goes. "Astonishing mountain, standing in the calm."

More than astonishing, this extinct volcano has become the sticking point of an enduring conflict between two fundamental aspects of the human experience: spirituality and discovery. Mauna Kea's height and majesty have made it both the premier location on the planet for astronomical observation, as well as the most sacred site in the Hawaiian archipelago.

Today, the proposal to construct a cutting-edge telescope with the potential to unveil some of the most fundamental mysteries of the universe has divided Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, forcing all to wrestle with questions of sacredness, responsible science, and who owns the rights to the land and the sky. 


Modern astronomy on Mauna Kea began with an earthquake in Chile. At around 3 in the afternoon on May 22, 1960, the largest earthquake ever instrumentally recorded sent shockwaves out across the ocean. Fifteen hours later, a 30-foot wall of water slammed into Hilo Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. Homes, neighborhoods and businesses were pulled out to sea as the waters receded. As a result of the devastation, the business community of Hilo was looking to entice new economic opportunities to the island. Astronomy, positioned high above the destructive force of the Pacific Ocean, seemed worth pursuing. After some testing of the atmospheric conditions, the state auctioned off a 60-year lease of the mountain's upper slopes. The University of Hawaii placed the winning bid, an access road to the summit was installed, and all land above 12,000 feet became part of the new Mauna Kea Science Reserve.

The first telescope was completed in 1970 and, by the end of the next decade, three more telescopes had cropped up on the summit. There are 13 observatories currently clustered at the top of the extinct volcano today, more than on any other mountain. Each represents the best technology of their time. Data and observations collected from Mauna Kea have been instrumental in some of the most stellar astronomical breakthroughs of the last half a century, from the discovery of the Kuiper Belt — an icy ring of rocks orbiting just beyond Neptune where the not-quite-planets like Pluto reign — to an answer for one of the most basic questions about the universe: What is it made of? Thayne Currie, astronomer and research associate at Japan's Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, recalls the day when that question was answered.

"It turns out the answer is that it looks like most of the universe is comprised of what is called dark energy. Essentially, the energy of empty space," Currie said. "I remember the day in which my professor told us: we think we've found this. The lecture I just gave you is completely wrong."

A main contributor to the discovery of Dark Energy was the twin pair of Keck telescopes, one of the newer and most scientifically productive observatories on Mauna Kea. Each telescope features a 10-meter primary mirror, segmented into a honeycomb of individually adjustable segments. For optical and infrared telescopes, the strength of the scope is limited by the diameter of its primary light-collecting surface — typically a mirror rather than a lens in most modern telescopes. The larger the diameter, the more light the telescope is able to collect, which allows astronomers to see objects that are fainter and further away. Larger telescopes also have a higher angular resolution, meaning the images produced are sharper. With their 10-meter diameter mirror, the Keck twins are some of the most powerful telescopes on Mauna Kea and in the world today. Since the completion of Keck, however, astronomers have had their sights set on something even more powerful. A telescope that would throw open the shutters on a whole new range of cosmic discoveries.


Professor of astronomy at Caltech, Charles Steidel, has been on the Science Advisory Committee for the "Thirty Meter Telescope" since the project's inception — before it was even called TMT. In 1998, the Keck telescopes had been in use for just two years but Caltech was already beginning to draw up plans for something even bigger. 

"We realized that if any next generation observatory was going to be developed, we would have to start thinking about it early because it takes about 25 years for things to come together," Steidel said. "So we started talking about what it would look like."

The TMT would essentially be a scaled-up version of the mirror design for the Keck twins, with similar hexagonal segments that could be adjusted and finessed to get the best image. Only this time, as the name implies, the full diameter of the mirror would extend to thirty meters, increasing the sensitivity of the scope by a factor of nearly 100. This heightened sensitivity would widen the horizon for astronomers, allowing them to clearly see fainter objects that lie further into the reaches of space and, consequently, deeper back in time. One of the most anticipated applications for this new sight is the prospect of discovering and studying exoplanets, in orbit around other suns — a task which, according to Currie, is comparable to trying to see a firefly next to a pair of high-beam headlights from several miles away.

"What we hope to be able to do as we flip the on switch for TMT is to really study these planets in detail at a level we had not been able to do before. To be able to figure out what they're made out of, the molecules and properties of their atmosphere," Currie said. "These things are trillions of miles away and somehow we'll be able to learn more about them than we were able to learn about planets in our own solar system in the 19th century."

For Steidel, the biggest contribution a telescope like TMT will be able to make to the field of astronomy is its ability to find answers to questions scientists haven't even thought to ask yet.

"The most interesting things that are done with observatories are not the cases that were used to develop the observatory in the first place, but things you learn that came as sort of a surprise," Steidel said.  "We call that ability opening up discovery space. If you have an increase in sensitivity that's so large, you're certain to find a lot of very interesting things that you weren't anticipating."


The TMT Corporation, a collection of universities and international interests, made the decision to place the telescope on Mauna Kea almost 10 years ago. From the beginning, site studies have pointed to Mauna Kea as the best location in the world for astronomy. For one thing, at that height, there is much less atmosphere above you to distort incoming light. At higher altitudes, the temperatures are also lower and the air is dryer, maximizing the wavelengths of energy that are able to make it through. 

"When you start getting into longer wavelengths like infrared, the transparency of the atmosphere is very highly dependent on how much water vapor there is above the observatory. And generally speaking, the higher you go, the less water vapor there is and the colder it is, the less water vapor there is," Steidel said.

There were higher sites available–the TMT corporation had looked into a site in Chile that rises to a lofty 18,000 feet above sea level–but Mauna Kea represented the perfect balance between altitude and protecting the safety of the mechanics, engineers and astronomers who would have trouble working on the mountain for long stretches at a time without oxygen.

"Mauna Kea, at about 14,000 feet, is about the highest you can go without making it hard for people to work, and still get transparency," Steidel said. 

So the TMT project finalized their plans to build on Mauna Kea, acquiring a sublease of the land from the University of Hawaii and applying to the Board of Land and Natural Resources for the requisite Conservation District Use Permit. In October of 2014, the TMT was ready to start moving earth. 


On the day of the groundbreaking, native Hawaiian and educator, Pua Case, was going up to the mountain to pray.

Case was one of a group of petitioners who had filed an appeal of the Board of Land and Natural Resources's approval of the sublease for the TMT. She had heard that the groundbreaking was going forward despite the contested nature of the project and felt she needed to be there that day, to say her apologies to the mountain for the disruption that was about to happen. 

"Little by little people found out the groundbreaking was going to occur and they said, 'Pua what are you gonna do?' That's usually the question," Case said. She told them her plans and they began to ask if they could come with her. Soon the small prayer group had grown into a massive gathering. "We hold orientations when we are going into ceremony, and at both of them there were over 100 people, and I thought 'Oh my gosh this is going to be huge.'"

When Case arrived on Mauna Kea the day of the ceremony, draped in a fringed shawl with a triangular pattern depicting the Mauna, there were close to 400 people in attendance. Case had planned to stand her ground at an ahu, or stone shrine, on the lower slopes of the mountain, but some of the others had plans to go further up and make their voices heard.

"I thought we were all going to pray," Case said. "And I made a promise to the mountain I would stay there and hold that anchor. So that was where I stood. Little did I know that most people decided they were going up a little further and that some people went to the summit."

Both her husband and daughter had gone up with the rest of the group. During the day, Case had no way of knowing what was going on near the summit; she remained in prayer without access to a cell phone. It wasn't until their ceremony was finished that someone pulled out their phone and finally saw the news. The groundbreaking had been halted.

Some protestors had clustered at the crosswalk by the Mauna Kea Visitor's Center at 9,000 feet. Others had made it up to the proposed site of the TMT, where dignitaries from around the world were gathered for the dedication and groundbreaking. With chanting and singing and imploring speeches, the protestors managed to disrupt the ceremony and send the TMT Corporation and their important guests off the mountain for the day. Once Case knew what had happened, she waited until the last protestor came back down, to pray with each of them.

"A lot of their pent up feelings about all the development in their own life, when they've lost something, when something has been done to them, it all spilled out," Case said. "We closed that prayer and from that moment we knew there was no going back for us."


For Case and other native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is the birthplace of souls. Its full name is Mauna a Wakea, so called for the deity Wakea, father of the Hawaiian Islands. To ancient Hawaiians, the summit was considered the realm of the gods, the "piko" or umbilical cord connecting the land to the sky. The mountain served as the seat of power for Hawaii's King Kamehameha and generations of ancient chiefs. Its slopes are freckled with heiau (temples), ahu and other important archaeological sites. Many native Hawaiians today view the mountain as their Kupuna, their ancestor, and treat it with the respect one would grant a family gravesite–and indeed, there are many a family burial ground hidden on the mountain, as well.

 "It is a place where ancestral wisdom and indigenous wisdom still abides. And when I am in the presence of this sacredness it shapes my conduct. It teaches me how to behave, how to interact," Case said. "That's what sacred is to me, places that still teach me. That we are even allowed to be in its presence and we are gifted with even a spec of knowledge, custom, tradition, from that place, that is sacred."

To some who hold the mountain sacred, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope represents another notch in a long history of desecration and indigenous oppression. The Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893 by American citizens keen on incorporating the islands into the United States. For many years, Hawaiian language and religion was suppressed. Today however, Hawaiian culture is in the midst of a resurgence and, more and more, Hawaiians are deciding to protect those places most important to them and their people.

So, when the groundbreaking of the TMT brought about the opportunity to take a physical stand for this most important site, those involved in the protests said it was not a question of opposing science or astronomy, it was about standing for Mauna Kea. 

"One moment sitting here, the next, you're on the mountain and you're saying 'no, you can't go any further, not today.' When that occurred that ignited a spark that was lying dormant in many hearts. It ignited a flame in those who always wished they could stand," Case said.

Though the first stand ended peacefully, further attempts to begin construction on the TMT site, and the subsequent blockades, began to result in arrests. But by then the protestors were fully committed to the cause. They saw themselves, they said, as the mountain's protectors.

"To rally us together it took the mountain. Only the mountain could do that," Case said.


Tied together with this cultural opposition to TMT is the concern for the environment of the mountain. For many native Hawaiians, threats to the earth also represent threats to their culture. Though the TMT had to undergo rigorous environmental scrutiny to apply for a permit–submitting an environmental impact statement and meeting the eight criteria required to build on conservation land–a long history of mismanagement has created an aura of mistrust surrounding the project's environmental claims.

In 1998, there were 10 telescopes already in place at the summit of Mauna Kea and three more under construction. Some were built before the state had put the permit application process in place. For all intents and purposes, astronomers had the run of the land.

Responding to rising public concerns about the environment of Mauna Kea, the Hawaiian state government requested an audit of the University of Hawaii's management of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. The results of the audit reflected a piecemeal management system that took a reactive stance towards environmental protections and overlooked the mountain's significance as a cultural resource.

State Auditor Marion Higa wrote in the report summary, "We found that the University of Hawaii's Management of Mauna Kea Science Reserve is inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources. The university focused primarily on the development of Mauna Kea and tied the benefits gained to its research program."

In response to this criticism, the University was required to enact a comprehensive management plan for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, and the Office of Mauna Kea Management was created to enforce the new restrictions.

Hawaii resident Doug Arnott has been leading commercial tours up the mountain since 1990 and remembers what he saw as abuse and neglect of the mountain before the stricter regulations. In those days, there were little to no restrictions on tourists visiting the more sacred sites on the mountain. One such site is the alpine Lake Waiau, where native Hawaiians would bury their child's piko, the umbilical cord, and perform other ceremonies and rituals. One day, Arnott took his tour to see the lake and was appalled at the state of it. 

"Debris of decades of free access had been left behind, and the area was literally trashed," Arnott wrote in an email. "A few days later we went up again with two vans, one emptied of seats, and lots of large garbage bags. At the end of an exhaustive cleanup we had the one van full of garbage bags but the lake area was pristine." Arnott and his group found everything from old clothes to aluminum cans, food wrappers and plastic bags during their cleanup.

This history of mismanagement is also coupled with some additional language in the TMT's environmental impact statement, which, according to Candace Fujikane of KAHEA Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, essentially states that the addition of the TMT will not tip the balance from a less than significant impact to a significant impact, because that threshold has already been crossed by the telescopes currently on the mountain. 

"What they're saying is that since there is already cumulative adverse significant and substantial impact, the addition of one more will not matter," Fujikane said. "What that does is it basically invalidates the environmental review process."

Even if the environmental impact of the TMT on its own is negligible, Fujikane says the interconnectedness of culture and environment for many native Hawaiians means that the disturbance of Mauna Kea for this telescope would still be devastating.

"The [Conservation District Use Application] generally focuses on how Native American practices will not be impacted, but it says nothing about the mountain itself as a cultural resource," Fujikane said. "So they're saying the removal of 66 thousand cubic yards of earth, it doesn't really matter, it's not going to hurt the natural environment. I was trying to argue it has a cultural impact because it's the removal of a cultural resource."

One of the roadblocks that Fujikane says natives have faced in the fight to protect their sacred sites is a difference in perceptions. Not everyone sees the inextricable link between culture and the environment. This attempt to separate the two means that it is often difficult to defend a site from development if the environment is not under significant threat.

"That's the frustration I feel as someone who has followed these different environmental cases," Fujikane said. "It's easier to call for the protection of the environment than it is to call for the protection of native or indigenous rights."


Scientists and other supporters of the TMT have responded to concerns over the environment with assurances that the TMT Corporation has gone to great pains to minimize the telescope's impact on the mountain. Currie is an admin for a Facebook group called Yes to TMT. He and some of the other Hilo-based members attend the weekly farmers' market on Saturdays in an attempt to reach out to the public and address concerns about the project. According to Currie, the observatory has no plans to use mercury and will be a zero waste discharge facility–trucking all waste off the mountain, rather than using a cesspool system as some of the other observatories do. All waste containers will be double hulled to prevent leaks and will never be fully filled to prevent splash-out of waste.

"So from what we understand and from what we know from the construction details of the TMT, it poses no credible threat to the water," Currie said. "Compared to a lot of projects, it's very benign."

Steidel agrees, noting that the overall intent of the project is to advance human discovery.

"I think it's important to realize that these things are purely curiosity driven scientific investigations at the end of the day," Steidel said. "There is no ulterior motive. Most astronomers are big environmentalists and the last thing they would want to do is destroy some kind of ecosystem or something like that. It seems kind of ironic to choose the most benign invader of the big island as the focal point."


To address the cultural significance of the mountain, the TMT has made choices in its design to reduce its impact on Native Hawaiian practices. TMT would be situated on a plateau on the northwestern side of the mountain and, despite its considerable height of 18 stories, the structure should not be visible from tallest point of the summit. The dome of the observatory was re-designed several times to reduce the footprint. As for the addition of yet another telescope on the already crowded summit, the University of Hawaii has agreed to decommission three of the existing telescopes, restoring their sites to their original, untouched condition.

Currie has also fielded concerns from TMT opposition who feel that the land the telescopes occupy is not one they have any right to in the first place, as the Kingdom of Hawaii was taken by force in the 19th century.

"I understand that general feeling that someone can look at the TMT and say that this is yet another chapter in the story of outside Western influences coming here to colonize, subjugate, and disrespect the native indigenous population," Currie said. "What the right and moral thing to do is to have science that is decolonized… I guess one of the reasons I actually support the project is that I do feel like it is that response… Astronomy moves me because, in a way, it's the closest thing I can think of to a sacred science. You pose these really fundamental questions we have. Where did everything come from? What is the universe made out of? And are we alone?"

For Case, what this fight over Mauna Kea comes down to is not, at its core, about science, but rather about saying "no more."

"This is not about astronomy versus culture, this is about destroying our Mauna to make your science happen," Case said. "Irresponsible science. There is such a thing. No. Your science cannot be forwarded at the expense of us anymore. No. We refuse."

The position of native Hawaiians on the TMT is far from unified however. A group called PUEO, an acronym for Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities, represents native Hawaiians who want better career and education prospects for Hawaiian children and therefore support the TMT. Hawaii has struggled to find a stable economic alternative to the tourism industry, which dominates the state economy. Accompanying these economic struggles are a host of social complications. Hawaii has one of the country's highest homelessness rates and the big island has the highest suicide rate of all the islands.

Native Hawaiian farmer and member of PUEO, Richard Ha, believes the TMT can bring lucrative job opportunities to the state, which would only help his people. In addition to the construction and career-track jobs the telescope would require, the TMT organization has made plans to support native Hawaiian education. According to Ha, the TMT's president, Henry Yang, worked to find a common ground between supporters and opponents when the initial pushback against the telescope occurred in 2014.

"After a little bit, he realized that the lowest common denominator that both sides could agree with was student education," Ha said.  In response, the TMT announced The Hawaiian Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund,  a $1 million annual investment in Hawaiian students pursuing education in STEM fields. Ha said he recognized the efforts the corporation was making to improve the lives of Hawaiians, and felt that supporting the TMT was the right thing to do.

"It's not about us, none of us are going to make any money…. we are strictly about the next generation. It became necessary to take a stand and that's how I got involved," Ha said "I just think that if we don't do this … we will have lost an opportunity to elevate our people. All of the people, not just a few of the people, but everybody.


More than two years after the first stand at the TMT groundbreaking, the Protectors of Mauna Kea gather in the Crown Room of the Grand Naniloa Hotel and begin to sing. After sitting through three hours of quasi-judicial proceedings, hearing officer Rikki Amano has released all parties for an hour-long lunch. Despite the long day still ahead of them, there are smiles around the room. Volunteers from across the big island of Hawaii had brought the Protectors food to show their support. Some of the petitioners have given up jobs to commit full time to the back-to-back schedule of the current contested case hearing.

Today, the fate of Mauna Kea and the TMT hangs in a legal limbo. Any construction has been indefinitely halted. The appeals by Pua Case and other petitioners, as well as the determination of protestors willing to be arrested up on the mountain, lead the supreme court of Hawaii to vacate the Conservation District Use Permit, sending it back to the Board of Land and Natural Resources for reconsideration.  Now all parties–the petitioners, University of Hawaii, TMT Corporation, and representatives from PUEO–are entrenched in a months-long contested case hearing.

The hearings so far have consisted of exhaustive witness testimonies and cross-examinations. At the end of the process, Judge Amano will give her recommendation to the BLNR on whether or not they should reissue the permit to the TMT Corporation.

The process won't end with these hearings however, as there will likely be months of deliberation and appeals following whatever decision the BLNR arrives at.

Although the TMT maintains that Mauna Kea is still their first choice for the observatory, they have selected an alternative site in the Canary Islands if Mauna Kea can't be secured by a deadline in early 2018. The state of Hawaii has already spent over $220,000 on the hearings.

The petitioners, for their part, are prepared to see this through to the end.

"If we lose, we appeal, if they lose, they appeal," petitioner KuKauakahi Ching put it simply.

So, when Hawaiian songwriter and activist Liko Martin brought out his guitar and began to sing, others began to chime in. Soon a full-fledged sing-along of Hawaiian cultural music had broken out amidst the white tablecloths and chilly air conditioning of the Crown Room. The exhausted petitioners sang brightly:

"Hawai'i loa, ku like kakou…"

All Hawaii, stand together…


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