Hawaiian archipelago

Did you know Mt. Everest is not the largest mountain on Earth? That distinction goes to Mauna Kea on Hawai’i Island, also known as the Big Island. The state of Hawaii gets its name from this island, which is the largest of the eight islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago. It is so big, in fact, that the other seven Hawaiian islands can fit inside it and still get plenty room left ovah’ to hula your ‘okole off.

At 4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level, Mauna Kea is the highest point on the Big Island. But this volcano is actually sitting on the sea floor, so when measured from its base, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) tall. Mt. Everest is 8,848 m (29,029 ft) above sea level, making it the highest mountain, but not the largest. Wop yo jaws, Mt. Everest!

Mauna Kea topped with snow (yes, snow!)

Mauna Kea is the home of Poli’ahu, a snow goddess and enemy of Tutu Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands who resides in Halema’uma’u Crater at the summit caldera of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. Naturally, all five mauna (mountains) on the Big Island are sacred to Hawaiians, but Mauna Kea is the most sacred of all. Ancient Hawaiian law prevented all but high ranking ali’i (chiefs) from visiting the summit. The culture and history of the Hawaiian people is fascinating and inspiring. I have a great respect for Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiian people and a deep appreciation for everything both have taught me.

Today, Mauna Kea is also home to multiple telescopes, because it offers the darkest and clearest skies on the planet—ideal for Earth-based astronomical observation. In 1967, an Astronomy Precinct was established at the summit, which at present contains 13 telescopes, including Japan’s Subaru Telescope, the U.S. Keck Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), as well as one very long base array (VLBA) radio telescope receiver.

Since 2000, plans have been underway to build a thirty meter telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea. This entails the construction of an 18-story structure that would dwarf the other observatories, and with a 30 m (98 ft) diameter primary mirror, will be the largest earthbound telescope ever built.

The Thirty Meter Telescope

When I first learned of this project, I was really excited. My family and I regularly enjoyed trips to the summit to stargaze on cold and clear evenings at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station located at 2,800 m (9,200 ft). From the relatively small portable telescopes used for the stargazing program, we saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter as clearly as if they were just a few miles away. I wondered what images the TMT would provide, what discoveries it would make, and how it might add to our knowledge of the universe and ourselves.

In 2014, protests erupted as the TMT construction was about to begin. There has always been opposition to the observatories at the summit, but few as vociferous those against the TMT. In addition to concerns over desecrating the sacred mauna and its resident deity, there were also concerns about the potentially adverse impact on natural resources (Lake Waiau is located at the summit), the natural environment (the rare and endemic silversword plants that grow there are an endangered species) and surrounding areas and communities (there are very few roads on the Big Island, making construction vehicle traffic a nightmare as massive machinery and telescope parts slowly wind their way up from makai (ocean side) to mauka (mountain side) on their way to the summit.

Mauna Kea Silversword

While proponents claimed the TMT would bring jobs to locals, enhance the attraction of Mauna Kea as a tourist destination and benefit schools by providing educational opportunities to students throughout the island—and above all, bring in lots of cash—none of these purported benefits swayed the opponents. At one point, it appeared to me that this was about more than environmental impact statements or snow goddesses. The TMT protests had morphed into an issue that galvanized the grievances of native Hawaiians with respect to the haole takeover of the islands, starting from the missionaries and plantation owners, to the coup d’état against Queen Lili’uokalani and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. Marines in January 1893, to the no-vote admission of Hawaii as the 50th state in August 1959. The TMT was just another example of the haole disrespecting Hawaiian people and forcing his will upon them.

At first, I was bothered by the protestors. I have always been interested in astronomy, and I saw the TMT as a chance for Hawaii to bring knowledge and discoveries to the world for the benefit of all people. That seemed more in line with the “aloha spirit” than keeping Mauna Kea all to themselves. After all, atop Haleakala on the island of Maui, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is currently being constructed, and when completed, will be used to detect new asteroids, comets and other celestial objects that might be on a collision course with Earth. How are we going to get Bruce Willis up there on a space shuttle armed with nukes to take out the threatening object if we don’t have an early warning system in place?

Mauna Kea in the clouds

Over time, I gradually came around to the native Hawaiian point of view. The TMT might turn out to be the eyesore they claim it will be. There is no doubt the construction will damage the natural environment in some way. And shouldn’t Hawaiian culture, history and beliefs be respected? I fully support Hawaiians who want their homelands returned to them.

For a change, the voice of native Hawaiians may have been heard, because it appears that the TMT will probably be built at the alternative site, the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain. The TMT is still getting built, and native Hawaiians have saved their scared mauna—a win-win, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, at the base of Mauna Kea, on a plateau bridging Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, is the 108,863 acre Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), the largest U.S. military installation in the Pacific. This is the only place in Hawaii where the U.S. Army currently conducts live fire training exercises, which in the past have included the Davy Crockett nuclear rifle (with dummy warheads) and depleted Uranium. The Army has built a life-size mockup of what looks like a Middle Eastern village at PTA that is used to practice urban combat and door-to-door incursions.

Eco-friendly activities at PTA

For the U.S. government, the primary interest in Hawaii has always been strategic and military in nature. This Polynesian kingdom in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has very little connection to the continental United States in terms of culture or history. Before it was a tourist destination, Hawaii was a provider of sugar, pineapples and other agricultural products, but all those industries are long gone. There are a lot of native Hawaiians who consider themselves to be living in an occupied sovereign nation. They don’t consider themselves American citizens, nor do they consider Hawaii to part of the United States. The Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement is a hot-button issue rife with controversy, but it is real and it is not going away anytime soon.

But neither is the U.S. Military, which has hundreds of installations throughout the islands where over 40,000 active duty personnel are stationed. On the island of Oahu, where the capital city of Honolulu is located, the U.S. military controls about one quarter of the land. That is an awfully large footprint in this tiny island paradise. And it shows, as Ann Wright reports in her article Greenwashing Wars and the US Military:

From 1941 to 1990, the island of Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing range for U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels. One photograph in the exhibition showed the crater called “Sailor’s Hat” which was made by several massive explosions of TNT in 1965 to recreate and study the effects of large explosions on nearby ships and personnel to simulate in some manner the effects of a nuclear explosion. The crater affected the island’s fresh water aquifer and now no artesian water remains on the island.

After Hawaiians stopped the bombing through their protests and by staying on the island during bombings from the 1970s, the U.S. Navy returned Kaho’olawe to the State of Hawaii in 2004 after a 10-year clean-up process. But only 66 percent of the surface has been cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and only 10 percent cleared to a depth of 4 feet. Twenty-three percent of the surface remains uncleared and 100 percent of the waters surrounding the island have not been cleared of UXO, putting divers and ships at risk.

Sailor’s Hat on Kaho’olawe

Curiously, you hear very little in terms of anti-military protests in Hawaii. In part, this is because the military provides thousands of civilians with jobs and brings a lot of money into the local economy. Also, many people born in raised in Hawaii have few options after high school and end up joining the military as a way to get training, education or as a career.

Thus, I was slightly surprised to learn that graffiti was found on portions of the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve. Someone sprayed “stop bombing” on a few rocks. Hawaii News Now reports:

Officials from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) say the graffiti was found mid-morning on Friday.


The president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou said the method of protest wasn’t the correct way to voice concerns.

“The messaging is in support of stopping the bombing, so we don’t necessarily have a problem with the messaging, but we have a problem with the method,” Kealoha Pisciotta said. “Mauna Kea is a temple, Mauna Kea is a place of worship and a burial ground, and this kind of activity disrespects the realm and importance of Mauna Kea.”


Because the area is considered sacred and historically important, the geological features, including rocks, are protected under the Hawaii Administrative Rules.

“We want people to know we take matters such as these very serious. We will investigate these types of incidences, and we’ll prosecute violators to the full extent,” Jason Redulla, DLNR Deputy Enforcement Chief said.

Whoever is responsible could face misdemeanor violations, meaning they could spend one year in jail, and face a $1,000 fine, Redulla said.

Graffiti message

Isn’t it strange that the Hawaiian people come out in force to stop the building of a telescope in an area that already has numerous observatories, one that promises to bring jobs, money and science education to the local community—yet daily bombings on the sacred Mauna Kea only rate a few words surreptitiously scrawled in spray paint?

The TMT opposition blocked roads, physically threatened construction workers and led marches and protests all over the Big Island and throughout the state. Some were even arrested, but later released without charges. Yet the DLNR intends to prosecute whoever defaced those rocks to the full extent of the law. If these rocks are so important, why aren’t they concerned about all that bombing going on just a few miles away from the reserve? At what point does the sacred mountain—the temple, place of worship and burial ground—end and the secular begin? Isn’t all of Hawaii’s aina (land) sacred? If this criminal activity disrespects the realm and importance of Mauna Kea, what do they call the destruction caused by the military at PTA or on Kaho’olawe? Is that not criminal? And which crime is worse?

U.S. Army respecting the aina

Anaina Hou says “the method of protest wasn’t the correct way to voice concerns,” but I’m not so sure. This story made the national news, generating more than 200 articles as of this writing, according to a quick Google search. Most Americans don’t know anything about the Big Island or Mauna Kea, and they certainly don’t know about the bombing there or how the U.S. military has wrought havoc in the Hawaiian islands with weapons of death and destruction.

Thanks to this graffiti, maybe now they will.

Mauna Kea sunrise