Telescopes near the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. (Ric Noyle / W. M. Keck Observatory)

What Makes a Volcano Sacred?

Astronomers and Native Hawaiian activists agree that Mauna Kea is a portal to the universe, they just can't agree on how it should be used.  

This story begins with an earth-cracking volcanic eruption. One million years ago, great ribbons of lava poured out of the sea floor, piled on top of one another, and eventually grew into the mountain that is now called Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a tremendous shield volcano, the second largest in our solar system. Measuring from its base on the ocean bed, it is the tallest mountain on Earth. But Mauna Kea is just a baby by geologic standards, among the newest volcanoes on a 40-million-year-old archipelago’s youngest island.

At the time when Mauna Kea formed, the global population of human ancestors numbered in the tens of thousands. And it wasn’t until sometime between 300 A.D. and 800 A.D. that ocean-faring voyagers crossed the Pacific in double-hulled canoes to make their home in the Hawaiian Islands. To subsequent generations of Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea was and had always been a temple. In the Kumulipo, the ancient chant that tells the story of how the Hawaiian Islands and the Hawaiian people came to be, the volcano is considered kino lau, the physical form of the gods. Mauna Kea is the son of Wākea, the sky father, and of Papahānaumoku, the Earth mother.

Mauna Kea was dormant then as it is now. It hasn’t erupted for 4,000 years. The volcano remains sacred today, but not only to Hawaiians. Scientists, too, hold it dear. On its slopes, there are some 100 archaeological sites, most of them heiau, or shrines. And near the summit of Mauna Kea, there is a cluster of enormous telescopes, including some of the most powerful on the planet.

The placement of these telescopes—and a plan to build a new, mega-telescope—is the source of enormous tension in Hawaii, where Mauna Kea is at the center of an intense cultural and political debate. Astronomers want to move forward with plans to build their $1 billion observatory, known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, near the mountain’s summit, while local protesters are rallying against the project in an attempt to reclaim a unique and sacred place for the Hawaiian people. Over the past year, this fight spun out into a lawsuit that’s now before the Hawaii Supreme Court.

This is a clash between religion and science, but it is not just that. The battle for Mauna Kea is ultimately a debate about what is truly sacred, what it means to be human, and who gets to decide. Both sides have compelling claims. The astronomers can rightly point out that there are few realms of science that are devoted to questions as lofty and awe-inspiring as those that come from inspecting the swirling, twinkling, origins of the universe. But the Hawaiians and others who oppose the Thirty Meter Telescope have a strong case for their position, too—one that goes much deeper than science versus religion.

An artist’s rendering of what the TMT Observatory might look like if it is built. (TMT)

“Building a telescope on conservation land in Hawaii is not a right,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, the president of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, an organization dedicated to protecting Mauna Kea from development. “What is a right is our right to continue to practice our religion, and our right to a clean and healthful environment. Those have to take precedent over everything else.”

“From the outside looking in, it must look like a very messy battle between environment and culture and cash and science, and it’s very difficult to disentangle all that,” said Doug Simons, an astronomer and the executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea. “There is a cultural element in Hawaii that views this event in a grander light, as an awakening for that community. They see it as a spark for something much bigger than just the TMT. It’s very hard unless you’ve been immersed in the situation to appreciate the nuances. And I don’t think anyone understands them all.”

The reality is, neither narrative is as straightforward as it may seem.

* * *

Human vision could never pierce the heavens on its own, but for most of history it was all we had. For centuries, astronomers charted the position of stars and planets by simply watching the unmagnified sky, and documenting in drawings what they saw.

The desire to map and understand the universe reaches back to the beginning of recorded history. There are archaeologists who believe Stonehenge, built 4,600 years ago, was designed to align with planets and stars as a way to track eclipses. The Polynesians who ended up in Hawaii about 1,000 years ago were expert navigators who used the sky to successfully chart a course across the world’s largest ocean. Astronomy is “humanity's oldest science,” Alan Hirshfeld wrote in his book, Starlight Detectives. It’s a pursuit that takes humans to “the fringes of the visible universe.”

The Keck telescopes are among the most sought after resources in astronomy. (Andrew Richard Hara)

If ever there has been a piece of technology that requires as much exactness and meticulousness to build as it does imagination and faith in the unknown, it is the telescope. The first telescopes, invented in the early 1600s, were pocket-sized devices, but it quickly became clear that the trajectory of the telescope would be one of larger and larger instruments. In 1669, the physicist Isaac Newton made a six-inch telescope for himself, one that was a tool for observation, a work of art, and an object of devotion. “Newton ground the glass himself, designed the swiveling socket, turned the wood with his own hand,” wrote Bill Bryson in Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery & The Genius of the Royal Society. “In its time this was an absolute technological marvel, but it is also a thing of lustrous beauty. Nowhere could you find an item that more vividly demonstrates the beauty as well as the wonder of science.”

The telescope was a “wondrous cyclopian eye,” said Edward Everett, the educator and orator, in a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Dudley Astronomical Observatory in 1856. “I believe there is no contemplation better adapted to awaken devout ideas than that of the heavenly bodies. No branch of natural science which bears clearer testimony to the power and wisdom of God than that to which you this day consecrate a temple.” Indeed, a structure built to house a telescope can be a temple and, in at least one case, a tomb. The body of the philanthropist James Lick is buried in San Jose, California, below the floor of the James Lick Telescope, which was once the largest refracting telescope on the planet.

Telescopes swelled in size throughout the 19th century, but astronomical observations still required constant attention from the human eye. Photography would change all that. With the addition of cameras, telescopes could record observation—a functionality that Galileo could have only dreamed about. The size of today’s instruments would have been similarly astonishing. The James Lick Telescope had a diameter of three feet, but if the TMT is built, on Mauna Kea, it will have a diameter of more than 98 feet.

“The story of scientific discovery has its own epic unity—a unity of purpose and endeavour—the single torch passing from hand to hand through the centuries,” wrote Arthur Noyes in the introduction to his 1922 poem, Watchers of the Sky, which was inspired by a night Noyes spent stargazing during the first trial of a new 100-inch telescope in the Sierra Madre Mountains. “The great moments of science when, after long labour, the pioneers saw their accumulated facts falling into a significant order—sometimes in the form of a law that revolutionised the whole world of thought—have an intense human interest, and belong essentially to the creative imagination of poetry.”

Today, scientists and engineers are building telescopes that look like cathedrals, complete with 180-foot-domes. The biggest telescope on Earth today is the Gran Telescopio Canarias on the Canary Islands. The next two largest reflecting telescopes, Keck 1 and Keck 2, are already atop Mauna Kea. Just over a decade ago, the Keck telescopes used a laser to create a virtual star—one with a brightness about 25 times fainter than anything that can be seen with the naked eye—to help improve resolution of any object within its realm of observation. If the Thirty Meter Telescope is constructed, it will become the world’s largest.

Keck I and Keck II, two of the largest telescopes in the world, atop Mauna Kea. (Andrew Richard Hara)

The reason for perpetually scaling up is simple: The bigger the telescope, the better it can see the universe. But vantage point matters, too. To see strange and faraway planets, to really observe deep space, you have to look from the right spot. To the astronomers involved in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, the right spot is, unequivocally, atop Mauna Kea. Its elevation and remote location in the middle of the Pacific make it unlike anywhere else on the planet.

Viewed from a distance, Mauna Kea is a snowcapped curiosity in an otherwise tropical setting. But from the summit itself, the volcano is even more surreal: windy and arid, with otherworldly views of cloud tops and ocean expanses, and red dirt underfoot that resembles Martian terrain.

“‘Breathtaking’ is one word that comes to mind," Simons, the astronomer, told me. “For most people it is almost a religious experience to go up there for the first time, to be part of the majesty of the second-tallest volcano in the solar system. The ability to go up to that sacred site that has so much history behind it and, in principle, so much future in front of it as a unique portal to the universe.”

There are a few things that make Mauna Kea special, from an astronomer’s perspective. Just as important as its elevation and the absence of light pollution is the way the air flows smoothly over the summit after traveling across thousands of miles of open ocean. On other summits, pockets of turbulent air make peering into space difficult because as light propagates through turbulence, it jitters. “It produces the same shimmer you would associate with stars twinkling up in the sky,” Simons said.

“What you need for the very highest quality data from the ground is, if you could arrange it, a lack of any atmosphere,” Simons said. “Of course, we can’t do that, but the relatively smooth contour of these giant shield volcanoes means that as air travels across the Pacific, it has very little turbulence. It flows up and over the surface.” The lower the turbulence, the better the chance a telescope has of seeing farther into the universe, which is to say, farther back in time.

Of course, astronomers aren’t the only ones hoping to see back in time, on Mauna Kea. “This is one of the most significant and cultural sites in Hawaii,” said Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, an attorney for the groups opposing the TMT, in testimony before the Hawaii Supreme Court in August. “This is the beginning for Hawaiian people, for Hawaiian society, for Hawaiian culture. This is the source.”

* * *

In the early 17th century, as the first telescopes were being fashioned in Europe, the population of Native Hawaiians, some 7,000 miles away, was at its apex. Though some scholars now believe Spanish explorers encountered Hawaii sometime in the 1550s, it wasn’t until 1778 that James Cook, widely credited as the first European to travel to Hawaii, arrived in the Islands. Cook, an English explorer, set off a chain of events that would open up the Islands to the outside world and change the course of Hawaii’s history.

Cook and his crew brought tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, and other deadly infectious diseases to Hawaii, illnesses that decimated the native population. Scholars estimate that there were close to 1 million Native Hawaiians living in the Hawaii before Cook’s arrival. Within a few decades, the population had plummeted to 135,000 people. In the 19th century, French, British, and American colonialists all came to Hawaii to claim its land for themselves. Then, in 1893, the kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by white businessmen backed by the United States. The queen was imprisoned in her palace. In 1898, the former monarchy was annexed as an American territory. In 1959, Hawaii became a state.

During an annexation ceremony at Iolani Palace in 1898, the Hawaiian flag is lowered and replaced with the American flag. (Hawaii State Archives)

To the people of Hawaii, these are not distant events, but a history that continues to run just beneath the surface of public discourse like a live wire. The politics of land-use reach into every corner of lawmaking. This is not just because land on a remote archipelago is in limited supply, nor is it because the taking of that land destroyed a nation. It is, at its core, because a reverence for the natural environment has always been integral to the deepest elements of Hawaiian culture and identity. “When speaking of Mauna Kea—the first-born child of Hawaiʻi, abode of the gods—its integrity and sense of place depends on the well-being of the whole entity, not only a part of it,” wrote Kepa Maly and Onaona Pomroy-Maly in a cultural overview of the volcano.

Long before the first telescopes were built on Mauna Kea, much of Hawaiian culture was already at risk of being lost to time. In the late 1960s, when engineers from NASA, the Air Force, and the University of Arizona built the first telescopes on the volcano, Hawaii had just become a state. Transpacific airliners flying new routes to the Islands brought swarms of tourists, and with them, hotel and resort developers. Sugarcane was already losing its dominance as the economic engine of Hawaii, and now the cash flowing into the new state came primarily from the U.S. military and from visitors eager to experience paradise.

Soon, Hawaiian culture was being commodified and repackaged for foreign consumption on an unprecedented scale. But the practice of actual Hawaiian culture, like speaking the Hawaiian language, was taboo. A law banning Hawaiian language from public schools wasn’t lifted until the late 1980s.

In recent decades, Hawaiian culture has again blossomed. A cultural renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s brought back traditional music, hula, and the Hawaiian language from the brink of extinction. But it did not restore the right of Hawaiian people to determine the fate of land and other natural resources.

At the center of all this is a question about nationhood: What happens to the rights of citizens whose country is dissolved? And, more complicated still: What happens if those people want to resurrect their fallen nation?

These political complexities are impossible to unravel from the question of whether the Thirty Meter Telescope should be built on Mauna Kea, even for Hawaii residents who aren’t directly involved. “The problem with this whole thing is that it can’t be addressed fairly, because the second you say you are for the telescope, say, for example, that you believe in scientific research and progress, you are automatically branded as being anti-Hawaiian, anti-Sovereignty, and a close-minded Westerner,” said Daniel Gray, a nightclub owner in Honolulu who was born and raised on the island of Kauai. “You can't even bring it up and ask fair questions without someone getting violent, usually as a result of frustration... I happen to be pro-sovereignty and pro-telescope.”

And so the fight over Mauna Kea is not just about a telescope, or even just about a sacred mountaintop. It is about the fate of a people whose land was stolen and whose cultural identity was desecrated, and almost destroyed, as a result. For those who believe native peoples have the right to determine the use of the land they originally occupied, even scientific progress on the grandest imaginable scale may not be enough to justify the construction of a telescope. In some ways, the question of what will become of Mauna Kea comes down to a decision about which loss is more bearable.

“Given that the U.S.A. was founded on two great sins—genocide of Native Americans and slavery of Africans—I think science can afford this act of contrition and reparation,” said Steve Lekson, the curator of archaeology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History told The New York Times after protesters flooded the TMT groundbreaking last year.

Hawaiian cultural practitioners, environmentalists, and activists protest the groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope, October 2014. (Occupy Hilo / Flickr)

Even as stakeholders await the state Supreme Court’s decision on claims that the permitting process for the Thirty Meter Telescope project was flawed, the project could theoretically move forward with building the telescope now. Funding for the project includes a donation by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and a mix of university funding and government backing, including hundreds of millions of dollars from Japan, China, India, and Canada, where the telescope itself is to be assembled. Engineers in Hawaii have put construction on hold since June, when a crowd of 700 protesters blocked the one access road to the summit. After protesters were told to stay off the roads, someone placed boulders there to prevent construction crews from passing. More recently, a fiber-optic cable that links the observatories on Mauna Kea to the university system was badly damaged. University of Hawaii officials told local news outlets that the wire appeared to have been intentionally cut.

“It has left a lot of people feeling a sense of desperation,” said Simons, the astronomer. “What do you do if the rules aren’t being enforced? It’s one thing to launch a lawsuit. That’s fine. That’s all part of the process. But if people are allowed to do things that are blatantly illegal without consequences, that really tugs at the fabric of society. Forget astronomy and culture, what is this doing to Hawaii at the societal level?”

One of the strange things about the debate over Mauna Kea’s future is that the opposing sides cannot find common ground, and yet they make the same broad arguments. Both sides say the site is sacred to them. Both sides are frustrated with their opponents for acting without regard for the space or the people who truly care for it. Both sides complain of a culture of lawlessness. Both sides say the future of Hawaii is at stake.

Hypocrisy can be found on both sides of the debate as well. Those who oppose the telescope describe adopting a method of resistance with aloha, or peaceful protest. But some locals on the Big Island say they’ve encountered threats of violence, enough to make those who work at the observatory try to hide what they do.

And one bizarre line of reasoning from telescope supporters is that Mauna Kea has already been so poorly cared for over the years that one more telescope can't hurt. In the state Supreme Court hearing in August, Associate Justice Michael Wilson took note of this explanation, citing the environmental impact statement for the telescope project: “The mountain, albeit a significant cultural resource at some point, has been degraded significantly to the point that now it’s, with the addition of the telescope, not true to say there’s a substantial adverse impact on the culture, correct?”

Most telescope supporters will acknowledge that Mauna Kea has been poorly cared for in the past. But the fact that the telescope was permitted in the first place, Jay Handlin, an attorney on behalf of the University of Hawaii, told the justices, represents “the culmination of a process of years of community outreach, of dialogue, of listening, revising, reducing, modifying, mitigating, conditioning, to a degree that is unprecedented in the history of astronomy on Mauna Kea.”

The environmental impact statement acknowledges how the telescope could harm the spiritual quality of the site—by degrading a volcanic cinder cone, by generating dust and noise, and through the potential accidental release of wastewater and other hazardous substances in the environment. The statement, too, outlines many other mitigation measures it has planned, including a $1 million annual community-benefits package, a program to recruit and train local workers for science jobs, and the development of exhibits at “appropriate locations” to highlight the links between Hawaiian culture and astronomy.

These measures could be fairly interpreted, by anyone who has perused land-use permits for big development projects, as the simple checking-off of boxes in order to get approval, a means to an end. But making a promise and keeping it aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Astronomers like Simons seem to genuinely care about the future of Mauna Kea, and not just because of what the telescope could mean for his field of study. “It’s really about listening and finding a way for discovery and sacred sites to coexist on a very important asset,” said Hawaii Governor David Ige in August, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. But coexisting with a telescope at the top of Mauna Kea is the very outcome that protesters are trying to prevent.

“No money can buy sacredness,” Pisciotta said. “Hawaii was never acquired lawfully. We say this sometimes, I learned it from one of the other activists, ‘You can’t get rid of us. Hawaiians come with the territory, literally.’ We need to look at the world holistically here. From a cultural perspective there is no difference for us. Culturally, the land lives. And we’re related to it. We’re all connected, even if there’s no science that can prove that.”

Kupono Mele-Ana-Kekua of Kaaawa, Hawaii, blows a conch shell near the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island, in August 2015. (Caleb Jones / AP)

Today, there are 11 operational telescopes on Mauna Kea. Two others have ceased operations as part of planned decommissioning. In May, Ige asked the University of Hawaii to begin decommissioning more of the older devices, with a goal of having a quarter of the old telescopes gone by the time the Thirty Meter Telescope is operational. “In many ways, we have failed the mountain,” he said in a statement at the time. “Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural-resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place and we must act immediately to change that.”

To the people who have been fighting for Mauna Kea since before TMT was proposed, Ige’s comments struck an opportunistic tone. What appeared to be a compromise on one side came across as mere politics to the other. “We’re not asking you to take them down, we’re just asking you not to build any more,” Pisciotta told me. “That is very reasonable. Unfortunately the opposition, they’re trying to spin the idea that we're the unreasonable ones. We are not extreme backwards-thinking radicals.”

Among TMT supporters, Mauana Kea is all there is. The only alternatives to the project listed in the environmental impact statement are to build the telescope at another site on Mauna Kea, or to not build it at all.

“Sometimes a perfect storm happens and this is what happened on Mauna Kea,” Pisciotta said.

* * *

The last time lava poured out of Mauna Kea, in 2460 B.C., the Hawaiian Islands were still undiscovered by humans. Lava exploded from the Puu Kanakaleonui cinder cone and flowed 12 miles across the island and into the sea. Lava bombs rained down in molten globules that still litter the mountainside today. Some day, Mauna Kea will wake up from its long sleep. Eventually, it will erupt again.

To understand the fight over the future of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s painful history must be considered. But get too close to the debate, and amicable resolution seems impossible. Simons says he’s no longer able to focus on science, and spends 80 percent of his time immersed in the politics of the mountaintop. In dozens of interviews with astronomers, Native Hawaiians, and other local residents over the past six months, people described feeling frustrated, pessimistic, and sad. These feelings seem to have only intensified over time.

“If TMT goes under, it will be absolutely devastating for Hawaii astronomy, which is to say Northern Hemisphere astronomy,” says Simons. “To some, that's acceptable collateral damage. To others, that is a mind-blowing suicidal shot in the head.”

“Hawaiians and others who are pro-Sovereignty need to realize that they are wasting time, money, and energy on a battle that in the big picture is completely irrelevant,” said Gray, the nightclub owner. “If the telescope construction is prevented, how would that forward the movement in any way? Some high fives, some Heinekens, and Hawaii is still the 50th State. It pisses me off personally because I can see how powerful we can be as a people when we have the motivation and passion to stand up and fight for something, and it's being wasted on this.”

Protesters opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope gather outside the Hawaii Legislature in Honolulu, April 2015. (Cathy Bussewitz / AP)

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is among the noblest of human endeavors, but science is not all there is. What makes a volcano sacred, what makes Mauna Kea sacred, is not the tenuousness of its place in the ocean or in the larger universe, but the fragility of its place in culture to those who cherish it. Both astronomers and Hawaiian cultural practitioners profess a reverence for the mountain. Mauna Kea is, to both sides, the physical embodiment of a search for foundational truth. The volcano, they all say, can tell us who we are. Without it, we lose ourselves.

Those who oppose the telescope often cite the 1959 Admission Act, the law that outlines the conditions by which Hawaii was to be admitted to the Union. Among those conditions is the pledge that Hawaii’s land would be held by the state in a public trust for the support of the public, including the “betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians.” A telescope doesn’t meet that threshold, protesters say. “We’ve never been against astronomy,” Pisciotta told me. “It's that we’re for Mauna Kea.”

“People are constantly saying, well, Hawaiians aren’t against astronomy, but it’s clear that they don't understand what modern astronomy is,” said Paul Coleman, an astronomer and physicist at the University of Hawaii. “In modern astronomy, you must go with the biggest telescope you can build to the tallest mountain you can find. That is the defining thing for astronomical growth. They’re against astronomy.”

For Coleman, the battle over Mauna Kea is personal. His sister is part of the hui, or group, fighting to keep the TMT from being built. Family dinners can get heated, he said with a laugh. “If I wasn't born Hawaiian, I could probably get away without talking about this,” Coleman said. “It isn’t just about the telescopes. There are so many layers and so many different perspectives ... My actual perspective is every Hawaiian has to look at all these factors and decide for themselves. Whether they feel the benefits of the TMT outweigh any breaking kapu, breaking of rules.”

If there’s one core value that could link those in favor of the telescope and those who are against it, it’s this: You can’t go forward without looking back.

“The university came to us and they said we were backward-looking extremists,” Pisciotta said. “That’s kind of funny because backward-looking is the definition of astronomy. The larger the telescope, the farther back in time you look.”

In August, as the Supreme Court heard arguments in the latest lawsuit against the TMT, a team of astrophysicists using data from the Keck Observatory announced they’d captured a hydrogen emission from when the universe was less than 600 million years old.

An artist’s illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory at sunset on Mauna Kea. (TMT)

It’s precisely this kind of reach that makes modern telescopes sacred to those who use them. Telescopes were, after all, crucial tools of the Scientific Revolution. They made an otherwise unseeable universe come into focus. They promise access to knowledge that humans cannot otherwise achieve.

“When we detect genuinely, and I mean genuinely Earth-like planets, it will be telescopes that allow us to study them,” said the deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, Robert Massey, who asked me to make it clear that neither he nor the society has an official position on the Thirty Meter Telescope. “In terms of the grand questions—are we alone in the universe?—it will quite likely be large telescopes being able to see those worlds and help us answer those questions. They may well be the ones to tell us that it looks like we’re alone, too.”

In Hawaii, people often talk about the concept of a “sense of place.” What they’re really describing is a cultural connection to the land, land that is alive and imbued with ancestral spirits. Caring for the land as a way to care for one another is at the heart of what it means to be Hawaiian.

One day, these two notions of the sacred could merge. Hawaii’s sense of place has never been just about land. It includes streams, ocean, moon, and stars. It is conceivable to some that the Hawaiian sense of place might someday expand to include the cosmos as revealed by modern astronomy. A telescope by itself is sacred to no one. But on the right summit at the right time, it can change humanity’s place in the universe. The planet’s largest telescope could still be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea. Whether this is right, what it ultimately means for the sacred volcano and all that it represents, is for Hawaiians to decide.