Up here above the clouds, the colours are brighter and more vivid, the air is clear and crisp and I can see endlessly into the distance. I can only imagine what the sky looks like from here at night time. It must be an otherworldly experience to be able to see the vastness of space – and that is exactly the point: it is here, on Mt. Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii at 4,205 m (13,796 ft) that the world has placed its most powerful telescopes. This is the best place on earth to look deep into space, to explore the mysteries of the universe and perhaps, find out if we truly are made out of stardust.
I have never been particularly interested in astronomy. The concept of my being one of many billion people on earth, our sun being one of billions of suns in our galaxy and our galaxy being one of billions of galaxies in the universe is too mind-bending for me to grasp. This knowledge does not impact my life here on earth and will definitely not help me pay my bills. Or does it?
When visiting Mauna Kea you cannot stay untouched by the controversy surrounding this special mountain. Inevitably you are drawn into a discussion that challenges the validity and necessity of space exploration while questioning the state of indigenous rights in our society.
Mt. Mauna Kea is unlike any other mountain. Measured from the bottom of the ocean, it is the tallest mountain on earth – 1,200 m (4,000 ft) higher than Mt. Everest. Its peak, the highest point in the state of Hawaii, reaches 4% above the earth’s atmosphere, ensuring 300 days of cloudless sky in a year. At this high altitude, the environment is arid, the airflow stable, light pollution non-existent and the concentration of air-borne particles in the atmosphere extremely low. All of this means that the top of Mt. Mauna Kea is one of the best places, if not the best location from where to observe the universe. To date, 11 countries have located 13 telescopes near the peak. Among them are the two famous Keck observatories which, over the past few years, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe and its origin. Surrounded by a moon-like landscape, with nearby cinder cones acting as silent witnesses to past volcanic eruptions, the telescopes stand like aliens in a serene and otherworldly landscape. Few people venture this high up the mountain, not least because low oxygen levels make walking difficult and strenuous.
Mt. Mauna Kea is unlike any other mountain. To the indigenous Hawaiian people, Mt. Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain of all. For this reason, visits to the mountain peak are prohibited by ancient Hawaiian law. Only high-ranking priests are allowed to ascent to the top. In Hawaiian myth, mother earth and father sky married and gave birth to the Hawaiian islands. Mt. Mauna Kea is believed to be the first-born son, thus its standing as the most sacred mountain of all. The native Hawaiian population did not approve of the construction of the telescopes on “their” mountain. The observatories were placed on the slopes of Mauna Kea without their permission while the actual mountain peak is graced with an ahu, a man-made ceremonial structure, a place for offerings and worship.
Since the year 2,000 the international scientific community has been talking about and planning the construction of a 30 meter telescope (TMT). A telescope of that size would be housed in a 66 meters (217 ft) wide dome, 18 stories high, and outfitted with the latest scientific technology. It would allow astronomers to observe faint objects in the night sky with a resolution many times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, which continues to orbit earth. The TMT would help in the search for life on planets outside of our solar system and advance our understanding of star formation and how galaxies evolve.
After an extensive world-wide search for a suitable site, the international consortium managing the construction of the TMT, chose Mauna Kea as the best possible location. The TMT is to occupy 0.57 ha (1.4 acres) on a 2 ha (5 acre) parcel of land on the northern plateau of the mountain, 500 ft below the existing observatories on the summit ridge. The ground-breaking ceremony for the TMT project took place in October of 2014 but construction was interrupted by protesters right from the start. The activists claim that the construction of the TMT on Mt. Mauna Kea is not only violating and desecrating sacred land but also destroying fragile ecological environments that are home to, among other threatened species, the rare wekiu bug of the genus Nysius which can survive at such high elevations because it has antifreeze in its blood. Also at risk is the silversword fern (Argyroxiphium sandwicense var. sandwicense), a highly endangered endemic plant species whose population was, at one time, reduced to only 50 specimen.
Native Hawaiian activists also claim that the University of Hawaii, which leases the land to the observatories, has no authority over the mountain. The protesters state that Mauna Kea is crown land which used to belong to the Hawaiian Monarchy before it was annexed by the U.S.A. in 1898. In late 2015, the protesters’ grievances were brought before the state’s Supreme Court. In December the Court sided with the plaintiffs and rescinded the permit to build the TMT, stating improper handling of the “Contested Case Hearing” by the Board of Land and Natural Resources. The “Contested Case Hearing” is a process during which the potential impacts of the TMT project on the people’s rights and privileges were to be discussed. Apparently, the Board had approved the permit to build the TMT before the “Contested Case Hearing” had been completed. For the time being, the activists are claiming victory while the TMT Consortium views the Court’s decision as a minor setback. Still, the members of the TMT Consortium are worried enough to look at other suitable sites. One possibility under consideration is Mt. Saraswati, a 4,511 m (14,800 ft) high mountain peak in northern India, close to the Chinese border.
The TMT project is a US $ 1.4 billion undertaking to be completed by 2022. The countries spearheading TMT are the U.S.A, China, Japan, India and Canada. Anticipating opposition to the project, the TMT Consortium has undertaken an extensive public relations campaign. Since Mauna Kea is located on the island of Hawaii, most of the economic benefits would flow towards the island communities. Commitments made by the TMT Consortium include harm mitigation for the fragile mountain ecology, the removal of 3 outdated observatories to make room for the TMT, payments of US $ 1 million per year to support locally chosen education programs, hundreds of full time and part time jobs and the establishment of a local astrophysics industry paired with relevant educational training programs at local colleges. It is further estimated that TMT would add US $ 26 million to the island and state economy annually and significantly enhance the Big Island’s tourism industry. With a total population of an estimated 190,000 on the Big Island of Hawaii and an unemployment rate of around 10% among native Hawaiians (3.2% among the general population), a case could be made that astronomy is not just a pastime for scientists with lofty ambitions and never-ending curiosities, it is a nuts and bolts industry that can pay bills and put food on the table for many families.
It strikes me as ironic that the ancestors of today’s native Hawaiian activists were Tahitian Polynesians whose intimate knowledge of the heavens allowed the navigation across the Pacific Ocean. Their almost super-natural abilities to use star constellations as navigational instruments brought them to the Hawaiian Islands more than a thousand years ago. They were, without a doubt, the most skilled astronomers of ancient times. In my opinion, what better way to honour their ancestors and revere a sacred mountain than to respectfully use it for the exploration of the stars.
The value of sacred lands cannot be measured and their desecration by industrial development can hardly be undone. The world over, politicians and judges alike have to walk a fine line between the respectful treatment of indigenous rights while keeping in mind the overall benefits to the general population. These are emotional topics that often lack common sense rhetoric and realistic expectations. Still, what happened to the TMTproject was the result of reckless bureaucratic maneuvering. The Board of Land and Natural Resources did not act in a respectful manner towards the rights of native Hawaiians. I can’t help but wonder if similar road blocks would await the construction of the TMTtelescope in northern India.
I got an earful of opinions during my brief visit to Mauna Kea. There are valid arguments to be made on both sides. Thankfully, I am not embroiled in the controversy personally, able to go home knowing that I do not have to be the one who decides if research into extraterrestrial life should or should not proceed on Mt. Mauna Kea. Among astronomers, on the other hand, the possible loss of Mt. Mauna Kea as the flagship of American and international astronomy is seen as nothing less than “…catastrophic for science.” (Doug Simons, Director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mt. Mauna Kea)