The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (2): Island Burning

Today I stood on the roof of Hawai’i. Tonight I watched an island burn.

The first was my scheduled tour of Mauna Kea and the observatories perched at 13,500 feet above sea level and, more importantly, above the cloud layer. According to our guide, a “Pacific inversion” ensures that clouds all form below 11,000 feet in Hawai’i, and this seemed borne out by what I saw today. Of course it’s risky to extrapolate from one data point, but it was undeniably cool to be standing above the cloud deck.

Six or seven observatories dot the top of Mauna Kea. Much like gas stations crowding busy intersections, the observatories are all drawn to Mauna Kea by that combination of height and clarity: You’re already above a lot of the atmosphere by 13,000 feet, and what is there, is not often occluded by clouds or rain. Also, of course, it’s attractive to be based in Hawai’i. Maybe the high-energy physicists get all the cool conferences (Aspen, St. Croix, etc.) but at least the astronomers get to work in Hawai’i. 🙂

The observatories all looked remarkably alike, coming in two flavors: Radio-disk farms and domes. I wondered aloud what some future archeologists would think, should our civilization vanish and these domes be discovered forlornly occupying the desolate lava-sculpted mountaintops. Veronika, the about-to-graduate psych major sharing my row in the touring van, answered immediately, “Temples”. She’s probably right – “religious purposes” is anthropologist shorthand for “We have no idea”. And yet it’s probably not as far off as it seems at first blush. The ancient Hawaiians climbed Mauna Kea to bury their elite, to commune with their goddess, and to figure out where they were in the Universe. The tech is different but we still do the third.

More on that burning island below the fold.


The burning island was in fact the Big Island of Hawai’i. We passed close to the shore between Cape Kumukai and Kaena Point, which the navigator assured us was along the southeast side of Hawai’i. There, an active volcanic lava flow lit the sky with an otherworldly red glow. The blaze was maybe as wide as the full Moon – with no reference, I can’t say how far away and hence, how wide in linear distance – and was a little unnerving. It must have been on the other side of a hill, though, because the lower edge was razor-shape, a score against the blackness of darkened land.

I almost missed it. I forgot about it and was heading back to the cabin to turn in. Luckily it was a matter of discussion in the elevator on the way down, so I decided to take a look.

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