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Mauna Kea Kanada Konfliction

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Zipping up my parka and rubbing my hands together that night, I thought to myself, “a Canadian should feel at home here for lots of reasons.” Snow had covered the ground a few months earlier, the air held below-zero cold, and sunlight bounced off a gleaming rink-smooth surface.

The date was the 23rd of July 2013. I was in Hawaii.

“Where’s the Tim Horton’s?” I asked. 

No one in the van answered or got the joke. The spectacular view and the importance of the surroundings should draw people from around the world, and they do. The driver called himself a Californian, and the roll call on the way up the mountain exposed passengers from across the States, a few Scots, some Aussies, a young man from Switzerland, and a couple from Belgium, but a lone Canadian, me. 

“This is a shame,” I thought, wishing more of us could visit the place and wondering whether this dusty rock should be considered an extension of our country. 

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The gleaming surface reminiscent of Canada was not a hockey rink, a discarded Loonie, or Peter C. Newman’s head. This shiny dome housed an observatory and sat on top of Mauna Kea, the highest volcano on the islands, tallest seabed-to-sky mountain in the world, and arguably the best place on the planet to observe the stars. We were over 4,200 metres closer to the sun than the surfers down at sea level. Here above the clouds, astronomers have a clear view of the sky three hundred days a year. 

Almost a half century ago, Canadians stepped forward as some of the very first people to recognize the “astronomical” astronomy potential of this high and dry site; Canadian science has excelled in using this place; and, in a complementary way, Canadian companies, notably Dynamic Structures of Port Coquitlam, B.C., have helped build all the major structures here.

It may not look like it to visitors from other countries, but that night in 2013, I thought of it as very much a donuts and hockey pucks kind of place. Proud and pumped, I took these photos, talked to staff on site, and made notes certain that I should encourage more Canadians to visit the summit of Mauna Kea. Today I remain enthralled but feel less certain and maybe conflicted.

Though on holidays at the time, I booked my trip up the mountain with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures to check out the location proposed for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a project we at NRC had been advancing in varied manifestations for almost two decades. A consortium of nations hopes to build that next generation optical observatory with its giant light-collecting mirror on land just down the hill from the twin Keck domes and others built by Canadians.

That day on Mauna Kea, the TMT site showed signs of pre-construction groundwork, and things seemed to be on the move. I did not know that months later, all work would halt in the face of protests and legal challenges tied to the sacred nature of the mountain for native Hawaiian culture.

I had wanted to visit the summit of Mauna Kea for about a decade and a half. In the late 1990s, my colleagues and I advanced Canada’s first Long Range Plan for Astronomy and Astrophysics. To me, the shining domes on Mauna Kea symbolized the power of pulling together as a country – scientists who see into the future, government that invests in early-stage technology, industry that exports and builds the domes - and thus enables the cycle to repeat. 

The story of Canadian astronomy makes you proud; still, even these interests dissolve into the background when staring over the ocean at sunset as the dimming light touches the domes and the vastness of the universe seems within reach. 

In July 2013, all this combined to amplify the experience of a trip to the summit. But today, in the atmosphere of reconciliation in Canada, the combination could argue equally against further development on Mauna Kea.

Over a hundred thousand people visit the mountain every year and about five per cent go all the way up the rutted dirt road to the peak. The numbers in turn make me think of why those who consider it a sacred place might have concerns about the traffic and the TMT.

Hawaiian tradition holds that high altitudes are a gateway to heaven. In the past, only high chiefs and priests were allowed onto the top of Mauna Kea, and the mountain has one regal burial ground. Perhaps more. Close to a hundred alters and other archeological sites have been uncovered.

The concerns are not only religious and cultural, but ecological as well. Some endangered insects, birds, a bat, and unique plant life, like the Silversword, are found on the mountain along with an alpine lake of both ecological and cultural import.

So, five years later in 2018, I feel a little uncomfortable thinking of that night at the TMT site, kicking around and joking: a little light-headed and feeling unsteady breathing air with about 40 per cent less oxygen than what we inhale in Ottawa.

As I write this, the fate of the TMT remains before the courts and uncertain, and its proponents are preparing alternate plans, which would see it built in the Canary Islands. If this came to pass, supporters of Canadian science would have to accept the process as just and consistent with our country’s aspiration to balance technological progress with increasing understanding and sensitivity to cultural and ecological concerns.

But I can’t bring myself to dissuade Canadians from visiting the summit of Mauna Kea and feeling pride. Wherever it is located, the TMT will remain a vessel for peaceful international cooperation, for the advancement of knowledge that affects all disciplines and benefits all of humanity, and for Canadian science and industry to contribute.

Even if all tourist travel to the summit of Mauna Kea were to be barred, something not currently in the cards, I would still advocate a trip to the mountain. Part way up, the Visitor’s Centre named for Ellison Onizuka, the Hawaiian astronaut killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, provides a venue to learn about astronomy and history. The surrounding moonscape-like lava fields make great settings for stargazing, and one powerful Mauna Kea experience comes from looking at her across the valley from her shorter, but wider and heavier sister, Mauna Loa.

One of the reasons this area is great for astronomy, aside from the pristine upper air in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, comes from the Big Island’s relatively small population, meaning light pollution is minimal. The town of Kona where I stayed before and after the trip to the summit also made me think of Canada. It felt a lot like my home town in Ontario cottage country, maybe with the temperature cranked up and a few big hotels thrown in.

When the van pulled up in front of Kona’s Buns in the Sun Bakery late in the night after my 2013 trip up to the summit, I was tired and ready to go back to the hotel - in a way. But I confess - this was the first time in my cold Canadian-based life that I felt wistful turning in a parka for suntan lotion and shorts and thus vowed to go back someday and to encourage others to do the same.

But as proud as I am of being a Canadian, I think the fun and fascination of astronomy flows more in being part of the human race and part of something bigger than our country and ourselves. It is not only a global preoccupation, but one that is as old as humanity and consistent with our aspiration to afford greater respect to ancient beliefs and Indigenous ways of knowing.

This thought reminds me that the Hawaiian Islands were discovered and populated by great Polynesian explorers and astronomers who navigated by the night sky. Astronomy is at the core of Hawaiian history, and this makes it easy to think that sacred powers put the best astronomy place in the world on this spot. I guess I will drop the plan to dub it part of Canada, let the Hawaiians keep their volcano, and just be grateful that they let Canadians tread on it once in a while.

If you visit the mountaintop one day and see a giant ball encasing a thirty-metre mirror, remember how Canadian scientists and engineers have contributed to the advancement of human understanding on this site.

If you see empty ground instead, consider that this too may be part of being a 21st century Canadian.

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