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Uncovering the Secrets of Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea

View of Mauna Kea.

The Tallest Mountain in the World

Not too many people are aware that Hawaii has the tallest mountain in the world. What you say? It’s not Mt. Everest in Nepal?  Well, Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world if you measure it from sea level. Measured from the sea floor, the tallest mountain in the world would be Mauna Kea at over 33,000 feet. You can find this mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Other Mauna Kea Facts

Mauna Kea is one of five volcanic systems that created the Big Island, now being referred to by some as Hawaii Island. Along with Mauna Loa, it is responsible for creating the majority of the land mass of the Big Island.

Mauna Kea means white mountain in Hawaiian. It’s aptly named because its summit is often snow-capped during the winters. In fact, Hawaii is the only Hawaiian volcano with evidence of glaciation. Scientists believe that Mauna Kea actually went through three separate stages of glacial activity. During such time, there was a snow cap that persisted throughout the entire year.

Mauna Kea last erupted 4,600 years ago and scientists consider it to be a dormant volcano. However they do believe that, one day in its future, Mauna Kea will erupt again. But it does, many believe it would not cause staggering damage or loss of life. This is because volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are not highly explosive and its lava flows are somewhat slow. Such is the case of most volcanic activity in Hawaii.

Home to a Unique Lake

Mauna Kea has a unique feature in the form of Lake Waiau. It is the highest lake in the Pacific and is the only alpine lake in Hawaii. One can find it within the Pu’u Waiau cinder cone near the summit. The lake is unusual because it is able to retain its water year round. Scientists believe the fine volcanic ash at the bottom of the crater acts like a non-permeable liner. As a result, this prevents the water from percolating into the surface of the volcanic rock.

How to Visit the Summit

The ancient Hawaiian considered Mauna Kea a sacred place. As such, only the Hawaiian ali’i or chiefs and kahunas or religious leaders could visit it. Today, visitors can make the long winding drive up to the Visitor Information Station. Here, they can get acclimated to the altitude and obtain information on what to experience on Mauna Kea. The station also conducts monthly programs on star-gazing that are open to the public.

If you plan to travel beyond the Mauna Kea Information Station, be sure you have a four wheel drive vehicle. This is because the 5 mile road to the summit shortly beyond the station is not paved. If you are renting a car, check your rental car agreement. Many rental car companies do not permit you to drive their cars to the summit.

Once at the summit, visitors will see an impressive collection of thirteen world class telescopes housed in 12 separate facilities. Perhaps the most notable is the Keck Telescope, which is the largest of its kind in the world. Mauna Kea may be the best place in the world to for astronomical observation. This is due to its remoteness from ambient lights sources, altitude above the clouds and pollution-free clear night skies.

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