Most people, when you mention Hawaii, think of white sandy beaches, palm trees, resorts, and mai tais. They think of tourism.  Hawaii’s own tourism authority urges people to “discover Hawaii,” but the more accurate statement is that Hawaii discovers.

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This island chain has made key contributions in humankind’s understanding of almost every aspect of the world around us.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory to see the atmospheric studies being performed there. One of the most dramatic representations of humankind’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere is the “Keeling Curve” showing the steady increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere over time. Keeling began those measurements here in Hawaii in the 1950s and they still represent the earliest direct  and continuous measurements we have which show the buildup of CO2 in our atmosphere.

MLO has also made measurements monitoring various ozone depleting Chlorofluorocarbons in our atmosphere. Those measurements show dramatic decreases in the amount of CFCs in our atmosphere as a result of regulations that were enacted to save the ozone layer. This reaction to the problem of the ozone hole by regulating CFCs is a wonderful example of humankind coming together to mitigate environmental damage and work done here in Hawaii led to a worldwide solution.

Courtesy: University of Hawaii 

Hawaii, as you might imagine, has also played a significant role in our understanding of the oceans. For example, University of Hawaii, Bishop Museum, and Papahānuamokuākea Marine National Monument scientists have had key roles in the exploration of the mesophotic depths of the oceans, the reefs, and fish populations there. A recent issue of Science magazine (March 21, 2017 issue) highlighted some of this work and pointed out that the mesophotic zone “offer(s) a refuge for species from shallow reefs beleaguered by warming, pollution, and overfishing.” Much of this work was done by scientists here in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s role in our understanding of volcanoes is, of course, substantial. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory was one of the first scientific monitoring stations of its kind in the world. HVO made some of the first direct measurements of lava temperatures and some of the earliest measurements of volcanic gas composition. Furthermore, Hawaii was a crucial component in the formation of the theory of plate tectonics which describes the basic structure of the Earth’s crust. The paper “A Possible Origin of the Hawaiian Islands” is regarded as a pioneering work in this field.

Hopefully most readers are aware of the effort to save the endangered ‘Alala (the Hawaiian crow or corvus hawaiiensis) by breeding them in captivity and releasing them in to the wild. What many may not know is that research performed as part of that effort has led to the discovery that ‘Alala are not only tool users as many species of crow are, but in addition the researchers “observed ‘Alala selecting different kinds of tools, exchanging tools, … modifying tools.”

This is amazing. ’Alala are not only tool users, but they are tool builders which makes them one of the few species on the planet to demonstrate that special skill.

Finally, the impact of the Mauna Kea observatories on humankind’s knowledge of the cosmos is enormous.  The Maunakea observatories represent the most scientifically productive collection of telescopes on Earth. A few areas in which they have had particular impact include the detection of planets around stars other than our Sun, the study of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and the first ever direct image of a black hole (Pōwehi). There are many more, but these are but a few examples which strike me, personally, as monumental contributions.

This tiny island chain in the middle of the Pacific has had major impacts on our knowledge of:

  • the universe we live in
  • the air we breathe
  • the oceans that make up most of our planet’s surface
  • the very nature of the ground we walk on
  • and our fellow life forms who share this planet with us

I’m enormously proud of the contributions that Hawaii has made to science. To me, one of the most sacred things we can do as a people is to learn about the natural world around us.

I hope that, however the current controversy around Mauna Kea is resolved, the people in this amazing place will look at these contributions and see that knowledge is one of Hawaii’s most important exports and it is something we can all take enormous pride in.

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About the Author

  • Josh Walawender
    Josh Walawender is a staff astronomer at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea. His research interests are in star formation where he studies protostellar outflows and star formation feedback — the process by which newborn stars regulate their own rate of formation. Josh has also been an avid amateur astronomer and telescope builder since childhood and still enjoys stargazing under the Big Island’s pristine night skies.