Mauna Loa air sampling temporarily switches mountains

Dec. 27—Officials are preparing to bring back to life the Mauna Loa Observatory, the acclaimed federal atmospheric measuring station that was knocked offline when lava crossed its access road and cut off electrical power.

Officials are preparing to bring back to life the Mauna Loa Observatory, the acclaimed federal atmospheric measuring station that was knocked offline when lava crossed its access road and cut off electrical power.

In the meantime, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration officials have started taking atmospheric measurements at a new location—at the summit of Mauna Kea—following an emergency agreement with the University of Hawaii that allows for the collection of air samples at the 88-inch UH telescope.

NOAA scientists earlier this month installed an intake tube less than an inch in diameter and 25 feet long at the Mauna Kea telescope in order to take the same type of measurements that are usually conducted at the Mauna Loa outpost, which is renowned for tracking global climate change through the measurement of carbon dioxide for more than six decades.

The Mauna Loa Observatory is home to the carbon dioxide measurement equipment that maintains the noted Keeling Curve, which was among the first scientific calculations to alert the world to the possibility of human contribution to the greenhouse effect and global warming. The Keeling Curve measurements are maintained by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

The NOAA team also worked with UH scientists to install a separate intake tube on the existing weather monitoring station on Mauna Kea for the Scripps carbon dioxide measurements.

"It's amazing how much got done quickly to re-establish measurements, " Scripps geoscientist Ralph Keeling, who leads the Keeling Curve program, said in a social media statement. "This was possible only because of the close teamwork between our colleagues at NOAA and University of Hawaii."

In addition to carbon dioxide, the Mauna Loa Observatory collects air samples of nearly 60 gasses and records some 200 variables, measuring aerosols, solar radiation, mercury, methane and more.

Ariel Stein, acting director of NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory, said officials hope to make Mauna Kea a backup site in case another eruption interferes with the Mauna Loa facility.

The agreement between NOAA and UH calls for atmospheric measurements to be taken at the UH88 telescope for a year, after which it will be determined whether the Mauna Kea site data is comparable to Mauna Loa.

Measurements at the NOAA observatory ceased Nov. 29 when lava from Mauna Loa's Fissure 3 crossed Mauna Loa Access Road, blocking staff access and taking out power lines. No staff members were on the mountain, as the laboratory is largely operated remotely by a team of eight from an office in Hilo.

Stein said arrangements have been made to charter a helicopter to fly to the observatory as soon as it is safe. Following an assessment, the plan is to get the equipment running using battery power even before the road is fixed and power is restored.

"We're waiting for the lava to cool off and the volcanic pollutants to diminish, " he said. "We want to go as fast as we can."

The long-term plan, he said, is to run the equipment with solar power to allow the station to keep running even if a similar incident were to happen again.

"We want to be more independent, " he said.

There have been gaps in data in the past. Federal budget cuts in 1964 led to a suspension of operations for several months, and when power was lost during the last Mauna Loa eruption in 1984, no readings were made from March 26 to April 29 that year, after which a generator was brought to the observatory to resume operations.

The late Charles David Keeling of the Scripps Institution installed an infrared gas analyzer at Mauna Loa in March 1958, and on its first day of operation, it recorded an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 313 parts per million. The curve hit 420 parts per million in May.

Keeling chose Mauna Loa for the measurements because of its remote location and stability far above any pollution. The observatory is at the 11, 135-foot level.

By the mid-1960s the Keeling Curve was producing a clear record of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, as well as a measure of the rise and fall of carbon dioxide throughout the year as Northern Hemisphere plants die off in fall and regrow in spring.