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Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory

Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere

Forrest M. Mims, III

Publication Year: 2012

Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) is one of the world’s leading scientific stations for monitoring the atmosphere. For more than fifty years, beginning with atmospheric chemist Charles Keeling’s readings of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, MLO has provided climate scientists a continuous record of the atmosphere’s increasing concentration of carbon dioxide—and sparked the international debate over global warming. Hawai‘i’s Mauna Loa Observatory tells the story of the men and women who made these and many other measurements near the summit of the world’s largest mountain.

Botanist Archibald Menzies, who trekked up Mauna Loa’s rough, lava-encrusted slopes in 1794, was the first to make scientific measurements from the summit. In the winter of 1840, the US Exploring Expedition spent a grueling three weeks at the edge of the summit crater. Their scientific achievements remained unsurpassed for more than a century and anticipated the research that was begun in 1951, when a primitive weather station was built atop the mountain. Serious research began in 1956 when the first building of the present observatory was erected a few thousand feet below the summit. Recollections of past and present MLO staff detail the historic beginning of carbon-dioxide measurements and many exciting discoveries and near disasters at the remote observatory in this colorful account of the evolution of MLO into a world-class facility.

Today more than a hundred experiments are carried out at MLO, including precise measurements of the ozone layer, the sun’s ultraviolet, the dust and air pollution drifting across the Pacific from Asia, and a wide assortment of gases in the atmosphere. These and other measurements have provided ground truthing for satellite-borne sensors and led to major scientific findings, some of which have influenced public policy decisions.

Hawai‘i’s Mauna Loa Observatory should be read by atmospheric science students to gain an appreciation for the enormous effort required to generate high quality data. Much more than a strict scientific biography of Mauna Loa, this work will also be appreciated by anyone interested in a highly accessible history of the human side of atmospheric observations at a remote, high-altitude observatory.

165 illus., 110 in color

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

By its title, this book is a historical account of half a century of observation, discovery, and research at Mauna Loa Observatory, perched on the upper slopes of the world’s largest mountain mass. However, it encompasses much...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Preparation for this book can be traced to 1989, when I began making instruments that measured the ozone layer, sunlight, haze, and water vapor for a column in Scientific American magazine. My dream was to someday visit...

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1. Earth’s Biggest Mountain

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pp. 1-14

An arc of some 132 islands and reefs sweeps 1,500 miles (2,400 km) across the Pacific Ocean (Plate 1). The chain is the Hawaiian Archipelago, and its major islands are among the most scenic and remote on Earth. As Mark Twain reminisced...

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2. The First Scientific Expeditions (1794, 1825, and 1834)

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pp. 15-26

The remoteness of the Hawaiian Islands preserved them from discovery by Europeans for a millennium or more after the arrival of Polynesians. There are no known written records of scientific observations on...

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3. The United States Exploring Expedition (1840–1841)

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pp. 27-48

Archibald Menzies and David Douglas demonstrated that scientists could scale Mauna Loa and bring back accurate measurements of temperature and pressure from the summit. They paved the way for the United States Exploring...

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4. Robert Simpson’s Dream: The Mauna Loa Summit Observatory (1951–1954)

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pp. 49-70

The tough men of the US Exploring Expedition spent three grueling weeks at the Pendulum Peak camp on the summit of Mauna Loa during the winter of 1840–1841. Thereafter, Charles Wilkes’ pioneering measurements of temperature...

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5. Founding of the Slope Unit of the Mauna Loa Observatory (1955–1956)

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pp. 71-90

Years of planning and hard work could not meet the icy challenges thrown at the tiny Mauna Loa Observatory atop Earth’s biggest mountain. Repairing and servicing the weather instruments was...

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6. Startup: The First Science at MLO (1956–1957)

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pp. 91-126

Serious science began at the new Slope Facility of the Mauna Loa Observatory with the observations of the Martian atmosphere by the Kiess-Corliss team (Kiess et al. 1957) even before the dedication of the building on...

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7. The International Geophysical Year (1958–1959)

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pp. 127-150

On New Year’s Day of 1958, the eighteen-month International Geophysical Year was one-third complete. The team at the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded in the...

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8. Boom and Bust (1960–1963)

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pp. 151-176

The extended International Geophysical Year ended on a quiet note at the Mauna Loa Observatory at midnight on December 31, 1959. But 1960 began with a disastrous thud...

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9. Survival Mode and Making History (1964–1965)

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pp. 177-202

In less than a decade, the slope unit of the Mauna Loa Observatory had produced a remarkable record of scientific achievement. During the year before the Weather Bureau took over in the summer of 1957...

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10. The Second Decade (1966–1975)

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pp. 203-243

The Mauna Loa Observatory quietly entered its second decade staffed only by Howard Ellis, who was still officially listed as supervisory physicist, and Bernard Mendonca. Johnny Chin was taking care of the...

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11. The Third Decade (1976–1985)

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pp. 244-284

MLO did not receive notice about the termination of their office space lease at the Cloud Physics Observatory for more than a month after the notification letter was sent. Then on January...

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12. The Fourth Decade (1986–1995)

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pp. 285-326

The Mauna Loa Observatory entered its fourth decade without a crisis and in good condition. MLO director Elmer Robinson wrote...

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13. The Fifth Decade (1996–2005)

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pp. 327-361

In 1963, MLO was nearly closed by major federal budget cuts, but in December 1995 there was not even a budget to cut. The fifth decade at the Mauna Loa Observatory began with no budget. A politically charged...

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14. The Mauna Loa Observatory Today

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pp. 362-398

When its fiftieth anniversary year arrived (Plate 83), the Mauna Loa Observatory had evolved from a small building and a dozen or so instruments into a little village of buildings, domes, and...

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15. The Next Fifty Years

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pp. 399-420

On October 4, 1957, Jack Pales, Robert Williams, and Clifford Kutaka were approaching three months of duty at MLO when the former Soviet Union initiated the space race by launching...

Epilogue: “We Must Preserve This Progress”

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pp. 421-425

Appendix: The Current Science Programs

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pp. 427-447

Subject Index

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pp. 449-454

Name Index

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pp. 455-461

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837181
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834319

Publication Year: 2012