Mauna Kea (/ˌmɔːnə ˈkeɪ.ə/ or /ˌmaʊnə ˈkeɪ.ə/, Hawaiian: ˈmɐwnə ˈkɛjə) is a dormant volcano located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. It is the tallest peak on Earth, standing at 9,966 meters, and is one of six volcanoes that built Hawaii’s island (32,696 feet, 6.2 miles). This is 1,116 meters (3,661 feet, 0.7 miles) higher than Mount Everest and roughly the same altitude as commercial jets in the atmosphere. Its top stands at 4,207.3 meters (13,803 feet) above sea level, making it the highest point in Hawaii and the second-highest peak on the planet.
From its top, astronomers from all over the world view the heavens, while Hawaiians visit in search of ancient spiritual ties. It is one of the clearest spots on the planet for viewing the night sky, and it provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the polar tundra in Hawaii. The observatory was founded in 1964 at the request of famous American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, and in 1970, a 2.2-metre (88-inch) reflector for planetary research was installed.
It’s around a million years old, and it’s already hundreds of thousands of years past the most active shield stage of life. Its lava is more viscous in its current post-shield stage, resulting in a steeper profile. The geologic topography of Hawaii’s islands has altered dramatically throughout time, affecting its ecological landscape as well. The world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy is located on Mauna Kea’s summit. On summit of Mauna Kea, thirteen telescopes are operated by research teams from eleven different countries.
Organisms must adapt to a series of transitional habitats above and below the ocean surface as Hawaii’s volcanic islands rise and fall. Mauna Kea last erupted between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago and is now inactive. The peak rises about 38 meters (125 feet) above Mauna Loa, its larger neighbor. From its mountain summit to the depths of the ocean, Mauna Kea is not only lofty, but also diverse in terms of habitats and species.
Mauna Kea is the Hawaiian mythological abode of Poli‘ahu, the snow goddess. The top was once thought to be the domain of the gods and was kapu (forbidden) to all but the highest chiefs and priests. Although the trail is rather easy from a climber’s standpoint, reaching the peak needs a significant amount of work and above-average hiking skills. When European settlers arrived in the late 1800s, they brought cattle, sheep, and game animals with them, many of which became feral and disrupted the volcano’s biological balance.
Mauna Kea has three natural zones: an alpine climate at its summit, a Sophora chrysophylla-Myoporum sandwicense (or māmane-naio) forest on its flanks, and a Koa koa-Metrosideros polymorpha (or koa-ʻōhiʻa) forest at its base, which has been mostly removed by the previous sugar industry. It’s variety of terrestrial habitats includes stone deserts, shrublands, alpine woodlands, and tropical forests. Several endemic species that can only be found in Hawaii or the Hawaiian archipelago call these diverse ecosystems home. Concerns about the native species’ fragility have led to court challenges forcing the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to eliminate all feral species on the volcano.
Keep in mind that the weather on Mauna Kea varies a lot and can change suddenly. Temperatures range from zero to 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Summit gusts of more than 120 mph are not uncommon, and snowstorms have occurred throughout the summer months. Not only that, but expect 40 percent less oxygen at 14,000 feet than at sea level. Mauna Kea has been quiescent since 250,000 to 200,000 years ago, when it entered its quieter post-shield period. It lacks a visible summit caldera, but it does have a number of small cinder and pumice cones near the top. Later summit eruption deposits may have filled and buried a former summit caldera.
The ocean environments that make up Mauna Kea are diverse and alive with life. In the sunlight zone and twilight realm, the most marine life can be found between the surface and a depth of 1,189 meters (3,900 feet, 0.7 mile). The midnight zone and abyss are located below 3,900 feet and are dark, chilly, under severe pressures, and devoid of sustenance. Mauna Kea, like all Hawaiian volcanoes, arose from the movement of the Pacific tectonic plate across the Hawaiian hotspot in the Earth’s mantle.
During Mauna Kea’s growth, lava flows from the volcano overlapped in intricate layers with those of its neighbors. Mauna Kea, in particular, is constructed on older flows from Kohala to the northwest, and intersects the base of Mauna Loa to the south. The most recent volcanic flows are hawaiites and mugearites: they are the post-shield Laupāhoehoe Volcanics, erupted between 65,000 and 4,000 years ago. Species that live in these harsh settings have evolved specific adaptations to help them manage their temperatures, protect themselves, obtain food, communicate, and find mates.
Due to good observing circumstances, Mauna Kea’s summit is one of the top spots in the world for astronomical observation. The Visitor Information Station is a fascinating stop in and of itself; it’s the world’s best amateur observation facility, featuring a number of telescopes for viewing. The telescopes at the summit are solely for astronomers, but those who make it that high may still admire the diamond-studded sky and see more stars than they’ve probably ever seen before.