HONOLULU (KHON2) — So far the Mauna Loa lava flow has been a spectacle and not a disaster, except for the Mauna Loa Observatory.
Lava has cut off access and power for the foreseeable future at the worldwide headquarters for collection of climate-change data.
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Its staff is in limbo as to how its science of global importance can resume.
Since the 1950s an observatory like no other has been the place where scientists and their instruments gather data only Mauna Loa can help access, at its towering 11,000-foot vantage point.
“It’s well above the tradewind inversion, and this allows us to measure the atmosphere — we call it the free atmosphere, that upper part of the troposphere,” explained Steven Businger, a professor at the University of Hawaii Department of Atmospheric Sciences. “It gives a wonderful snapshot as to how it is that the atmosphere is changing globally.”
That snapshot includes a series of CO2 measurements since 1958 on what’s known as the Keeling Curve, named for Charles David Keeling. It’s the foundation of climate change research and a record unbroken for decades — that is, until Monday morning when fissures opened up just upslope of the observatory.
“Fissure 1 would have been very close to the observatory itself,” said Aidan Colton, an atmospheric technician at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory. “Luckily, there was nobody onsite, so everyone was at home preparing for the day. We no longer usually have to overnight at the facility, so that was a really good thing. Nobody had to be evacuated.”
Just after nightfall Monday evening, lava cut across Mauna Loa Access Road and it has happened again. There’s no power and no practical way to get back to work except for a helicopter landing pad for emergencies. Decades of data dots gave way to blank spots.
“Everything’s on backup power that can last seconds to hours to handle brownouts and blackouts that might happen throughout the year,” Colton said. “But once we lost power, and the power poles got taken out, all of our instruments basically went dark within a couple of hours.”
There was brief downtime in the 1984 eruption, but nothing like this.
“In 1984, the Mauna Loa eruption took out power to the facility, but we still had our road, so we ended up putting a generator about 10 miles down the power lines and powering the facility that way until we could get permanent poles put in back in place,” Colton said. “Due to the location where the lava crossed the road this time, it’s much closer to the facility.”
KHON2 asked: How critical is continuity of data for the kind of work they’re doing there?
“Continuity is very important,” Colton said. “So if we can get it on here in the next month or whenever we do, we should be able to pretty easily connect the dots. And while it’s not going to be as precise as it was if we were recording continuously, we will also make that well known that there’s a larger amount of error in this year’s data collection due to this volcanic activity.”
Mauna Loa Observatory is the premier atmospheric baseline monitoring station in the world. There are three other NOAA baseline observatories elsewhere and 100 locations that collect weekly samples to help fill in the gap.
“Since we do have such a long record, we will have some way to be able to interpolate through that gap,” Businger said, “But let’s hope that the gap isn’t too long.”
How soon they can get back to work on the mountain is out of their control.
“We really do not know when that road will be solidified enough and cooled enough that we can drive over it,” Colton said. “I’m sure we’ll probably have to get a grater out there and move the material around. It looks like a massive amount of lava on the road.”
KHON2 asked: Is there anywhere else they could pull up and relocate some of that equipment?
“We are looking at all possible options, and that’s kind of for our administrative team to assess what might be a suitable replacement,” Colton said. “Ideally, Mauna Loa is situated in an ideal location, and our record is at Mauna Loa, so our main priority is to return to Mauna Loa as soon as possible.”
Once they do return to monitoring, we asked, how volcanoes affect climate change data.
“Total annual global emissions of CO2, specifically from fossil fuel combustion, are at least 100 times those from global volcanic activity,” Colton said. “So even fairly large eruptions like this, or even like Mount Pinatubo, emit small amounts of CO2 relative to fossil fuel exploitation. Mauna Loa would affect our research at this point in time, because of the proximity. But on a global scale, we probably won’t even be able to pick up this eruption.”
KHON2 asked how Colton and the eight staff assigned to Mauna Loa Observatory doing emotionally, as their workplace is the first and only building incapacitated so far by this flow.
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“We’re dealing with it just like any other resident of the island, coping with the fact that there’s this massive fireball erupting in our backyard,” Colton said. “For the sake of Hilo and Kona, and all residences and residents of the island, it’s flowing in the perfect location, really. It’s away from anyone’s home. So if Mauna Loa Access Road has to be the sacrificial lamb in this situation, then we’re happy to pay that price.”