Hawaii's Telescopes Brace for Hurricane Iselle Impact

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Tonight, the state of Hawaii is facing the first hurricane to make landfall in 22 years. But Hurricane Iselle is only the first of a two that is cause for concern — Hurricane Julio is following only a few days behind. To add to the drama, a magnitude-4.5 earthquake rattled Hawaii, the Big Island, at 6:24 a.m. Thursday morning local time.

As the Big Island prepares to bear the brunt of Iselle, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center has predicted that the first hurricane will hit the island as a category 1 hurricane. As Iselle approaches, “wind damage and heavy surf are likely, but heavy rainfall, flash floods, and landslides were the greatest concern,” according to a NASA Earth Observatory news release.

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Of course, Hawaii’s 13,803 ft (4,207 meter) high dormant volcano of Mauna Kea is home to 12 of the world’s most powerful optical and infrared telescopes, including the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes, Gemini North Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. What are they doing in preparation for the stormy weather ahead?

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of Hurricane Iselle over the Pacific Ocean at 10:40 a.m. Hawaiian time (1940 Universal Time) on August 4, 2014.
Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

In an internal email shared with Discovery News by the W. M. Keck Observatory, interim director Hilton Lewis urged all non-essential staff to stay at home through the hurricane and, in light of the CPHC warning, the facility was “treating this information with utmost seriousness.” Emergency personnel and essential staff such as a skeleton crew working on the summit and at the Keck headquarters (located in Kamuela, below Mauna Kea) will be monitoring the situation on Aug. 8 and 9, however. Naturally, any planned observations for Thursday night have been canceled.

In light of the early morning temblor on Thursday, Keck’s Operations and Infrastructure Senior Manager Rich Matsuda said: “I was in the office and felt it — it was more of a rolling type and I didn’t feel any notably severe jolts. We will do a general walkaround of HQ, but I suspect it should be ok.” Matsuda added that the skeleton crew at the summit would inspect the observatory’s domes, but no problems were anticipated.

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In wake of the quake, no damage was reported at the Gemini North telescope either. “No ill effects from the quake that we know of,” Andy Adamson, Gemini’s Associate Director Operations, said in an email to Discovery News. “It wasn’t large on the scale of things.”

Hawaii is no stranger to earthquakes and a magnitude-4.5 tremor is more than manageable.

Like Keck, Gemini will be closed through the night and kept in a safe state while Iselle passes over Hawaii and the Gemini North headquarters based in Hilo (on the East coast of the island) will be closed through Friday. “The storm is still category 1 and still looks like a direct hit on Hilo,” said Adamson. “I think a power outage on the summit is a possibility.”

Adamson pointed out that even after the storm, “there is a chance of fog and the winds are likely to be high,” therefore any observations would likely be curtailed.

As Hurricane Julio approaches, the Gemini team are expecting further inclement weather and although they wont be expecting to be observing in the run-up to Julio, “we’re not calling the telescope formally closed yet,” he added.

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Assistant astronomer Roy Gal, of the University of Hawaii, told Discovery News that the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) was shut down last night when observing conditions got bad and that the facility would remain completely shutdown until Monday morning. As for any earthquake damage to the IRTF, “there was no impact.”

“Most if not all of the observatories (on the summit) are shut down for tonight at least,” said Gal.

Coincidentally, the W. M. Keck Observatory released news this morning (just before the facility closed down) about huge storms brewing on Uranus, the distant ice giant, which goes to show hurricanes aren’t only a terrestrial phenomenon.

Special thanks to Debbie Goodwin, Director of Advancement at the W. M. Keck Observatory.

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