Day off in Kona

Onboard the GV
On board the GV

When people who work in their offices hear that we flew to Hawaii for work they usually react as “Lucky dogs! I wish I could…”. But very few actually would think about it for a minute: when all vacationers are hanging out on the beach or leisurely stroll to the bar in early afternoon we would have gotten up at 5:30 am, hastily ate breakfast and rushed to the airplane, worked there in the heat of the day for 6-8 hours without going for lunch and finally went back to the hotel, wishing not for beach time but to lay down and pass out.

However, some days we can take off. More precisely, one day every week, meant to prevent the rebellious crew of the Gulfstream from going totally and completely nuts. This time such a day off happened to be in Hawaii. The fine Anchorage FAA folks who were so very kind to work with us there sarcastically shook their heads, not willing to believe that this was a pure coincidence. I assure you it was. Well, maybe almost. We like Anchorage and would have as well taken a day off there but it just so happened when the schedule was being written. Huh.

In any case, we took Sunday off and spent it doing touristy things. Some might have in mind a vision of a beach or a cool blue pool; or a swim-in bar with translucent mai tais served by a smiling island beauty. Well, what could be more touristy for a bunch of science types than to visit one of the most famous climate monitoring observatories in the world? So we went to Mauna Loa.

Forrest Mims III
Forrest Mims III talking to us on Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa is a mountain on the Southern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. It is over 13,600 feet high and while it was 88 degrees on the coast, it was a comfortable 57 degrees at the observatory, which is located at the 11,141 feet elevation. A front of clouds was churning above the Saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, some 5,000 feet below us, while we bathed in the sunshine and listened to the story of the observatory and enjoyed the tour of the measurements presented to us by none other than the famous Forrest Mims III. Forrest is a wonderful person whose enthusiasm ignites those he talks to, and very knowledgeable about the observatory and the measurements that are carried out on it.

The observatory has a rich an complex history, defined by the mixture of politics and amazing  personalities of scientists who sometimes dedicated their entire lives to protecting and improving the observatory. The Mauna Loa station remains one of the prime reference locations in the world for long term monitoring of CO2 and other green house gases.

The road to the observatory and back deserves a word all by itself. Tracking through desolate lava fields, the single lane road winds precariously, dotted by potholes threatening to take the wheels off your car unless you are driving a military 6×6. The lava on the sides can be black, brown or purple, and is sometimes smooth, or other times, scarily rough, with abrasive-looking spires protruding from the fields of jagged black debris. Driving fast is not recommended, and if you don’t understand why, you shouldn’t drive there at all. Several gravestones stand on the road sides, somber reminders of the motorcyclist who missed the turn and shredded himself on the unforgiving lava, and others that perished on the treacherous road. A trickle of white paint can be seen along the middle of the road and its purpose may not be clear to visitors. You will immediately know what it is for if you drive on the road at night: the lava surface reflects almost no light from the headlights and one could easily drive off the road had it not been for the thin white streak down its middle, made at some point by pouring white paint from a punctured paint can out of the back of a slowly driving pickup truck.

Fern on wall in lava tube
Fern on the wall in lava tube

The lava fields may look monotonous from the car, but if you are there, pull over and walk around. You will want sturdy shoes and sunscreen but if you do get out, you will be rewarded. The flows are never the same, they change texture and color. Plants cling to the rough walls of lava tubes, surviving on the minimal nutrients and will to live alone. The snowy zeolites fill the cracks and caverns. The lava crust cracks and settles under your feet. Lava tubes gape open, inviting you to visit their shadowy depths. We visited, being very careful not to fall: just move your hand over lava surface and you will know why you don’t want to fall, the lava feels like knife blades sticking through very rough sandpaper.

Entrance to the Underworld
Entrance to the Underworld

But the landscape is fascinating and one could easily spend the whole day wandering about the lava fields. Make sure to have a partner along, don’t go by yourself unless you are an experienced outdoors person. Even then, the treacherous lava crust can break under your feet, resulting in an injury.

If you are considering a hike from the Observatory visitor parking to the top of Mauna Loa, remember that it takes 4 hours one way; thunderstorms form extremely quickly and unexpectedly on the Southern side of the mountain that you can not see, and rush over it in an instant, pummeling the mountain with lightning and hail; and that in July, the night temperatures are below freezing. Rescue helicopters will not find you at night, so don’t head up unless you are prepared and leave plenty of daylight to get back to your car.

After you make it back to the paved Saddle road, it will take you back to the Western shore of the island, winding its way through the older lava flows, covered with vegetation. Some areas are lush green, with grasses billowing in the wind like horse manes, and trees lean westward, showing that this place answers to only two forces of Nature: Fire and Wind.

Closer to the coast, the beautiful jacaranda trees are blooming, showing off their light purple flowers against the fresh green of leaves, with the backdrop of the hazy foothills of the massive Mauna Kea. In the end, this was a wonderful day off on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Part two: Kona, Hawaii

Over Cook Inlet
Over Cook Inlet

We arrived in Kona after an 8.8 hour flight, performing 8 slow dips from 28,000 to 1,000 feet and ascending back up. On the way to Cold Bay, Alaska and for the next two hours after Cold Bay we did not see anything but clouds. Solid decks, stacked at two levels and sometimes at three precluded us from seeing anything other than each other in the cabin. We ate two lunches just to kill the time – who can wonder why I gain 8 pounds each on campaigns like this? For the last 5 hours we flew over the open ocean, which was moderately choppy. Several bow-shaped weather fronts outlined by clouds spanned the vast expanse of water, with some corresponding calmer and rougher seas underneath.

We approached the Big Island from the North Eastern side, which enjoyed the rare case of nice sunny weather at the time. We flew North of Mauna Kea, about level with its top, so that the observatory buildings on its top were clearly visible. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are fairly flat volcanoes whose slopes are covered in meandering lava flows of varying ages, some covered with sparse vegetation and some pretty barren. The two mountains are formed from basalt lava, which has low viscosity and caused the mountains to be very widely spread and look not so tall in comparison with their length and width, but one should remember that they are over 13,000 feet high and it snows on their tops. Snow in Hawaii – it does happen.

Air Service Hawaii greeting
Air Service Hawaii greeting us in Kona

We landed in Kona at about 4:30 PM and were met by the friendly staff from Airservice Hawaii. Red carpet and leis that the fine folks met us with were a very nice touch that I don’t think I will ever stop noticing, even though they keep doing this time and time again. The four rental cars were already positioned by the plane side and we were able to go to the hotel as soon as we were finished with work without any delays or hassles. Air Service Hawaii is a pleasure to work with and I will call them any time I need help with anything in Kona.

The Kona side of the island was covered by “vog” – fog of volcanic origin, condensing of the ultrafine volcanic particles, sulfuric aerosols, steam and salt that are lifted in the air at the places where the lava enters the ocean on the South East side of the island. Shadowed by Mauna Loa from the prevailing easterly winds, Kona is nearly always hazy but, as a flip side of the same coin, nearly always sunny. I have only once or twice in several visits seen its air clear enough to provide for good landscape picture taking opportunities.

To Kona

Today we are leaving for Kona, Hawaii. The flight will take us over Cold Bay in the Aleutian chain of islands. Anchorage is seeing us off with beautiful weather, few clouds and temperature in the 60s F. We will probably miss this cool weather very soon.

The GV is already on the ramp, waiting for us. The mechanic and technicians come out earlier than the science team to have extra time to prepare the airplane and not have people scurrying around, waiting on them. It works best for all that way in the end. We fuel the aircraft; it takes quite a bit of Jet-A to make sure we have enough to take us all the way to Hawaii.

Fueling the Gulfstream
It takes a few gallons to fill up the tanks on the Gulfstream-V

For the first half of the flight I am disappointed: there is a double to triple cloud deck over the Aleutians and the volcanoes are nowhere to be seen. We fly a low approach into Cold Bay, looking at the flat open tundra under our wings. There is not a trace of snow anywhere except for the remote mountain range in the distance.

We make a climbing turn coming out of Cold Bay and the pilot leads the way to the South.

The next stop is Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Part one: Anchorage

Gulfstream-V in Anchorage, June 2011

This adventure is phase 4 of the research project that was designed to study the distributions of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere in 2009-2011. The scientific part of it will be covered elsewhere; here we will only take note of the travel part of it, for the project covered more ground (or, rather, water) than many people do in their entire life and the places we visited may be of interest to those who have not had such a unique opportunity.

For the third time since January 2009 we have installed the instrumentation on the aircraft, packed our bags, kissed our loved ones and left on a 24-day long voyage spanning the Earth nearly from pole to pole, traversing the Pacific in a Gulfstream-V jet modified for scientific research.

The first flight of the 3rd pole-to-pole expedition is taking us to Anchorage, Alaska. Along the way we see the Canadian forests snow free for the first time: green, vast expanses without the limit stretch before us, rolling hills cut deeply with infrequent steep banks of large rivers, and even more rarely speckled with traces of human habitation. Hundreds of lakes and mossy swamps pass under the wings of our Gulfstream, bringing to my mind the amazing contrast of the ease with which we are covering thousands of miles over the terrain that would be absolutely horrendous to traverse by foot. I have done the latter in the past, and have a great deal of respect for the Northern forests and moss bogs. But that is a story for another time. For now we are heading from Boulder, Colorado to Edmonton, where we make a low approach over the runway and, passing through the streaking rain, continue on to Watson Lake. We repeat the low approach at Watson Lake after the pilots complete a procedure turn at some 2,000 feet over the forest. The lakes are beautiful, and the airport radio is about the same as usual: “Out for a few minutes… back with you now. Cleared for low approach… are you sure you are not landing?..” – some regret heard in the voice of the man attending to the airfield. Watson Lake is a small place.

Sunset over Cook Inlet
Sunset over Cook Inlet

This time it is mid June and Anchorage is different from what we have seen on the first two trips. First off, it is green: the trees, shrubs and grass are all reaching out to the sun, bathed by nearly daily rain showers. The seagulls are noisier than ever, the mosquitoes are coming out of hiding and the tourists are seen everywhere on the streets of Anchorage.

The number of people on the streets of Anchorage took us by surprise. The Snow City Cafe that we frequented during our previous stays is packed starting at 8 am, and even at 7 am when we show up there is a line forming. While generally this is no big surprise, Snow City is super popular all the time but this was like a rock concert. People are everywhere: at the souvenir shops, in the streets, on bicycles, on the pebble beaches and even on lawns and flower beds, taking pictures. The local economy for sure is getting a boost but for us, more traffic and being late here and there because of the crowds were the most noticeable changes from the quieter winter, fall and spring times of the past missions.

Our work remained more or less the same, and the highly experienced crew pulled off the research flight to the North Pole with ease. Regrettably, I did not get to go, we had too much competition for seats on the airplane, otherwise you’d be in for a treat of a write-up: where else do you get to fly in a jet aircraft at 500 ft above the Arctic ocean and sea ice? This is what the guys and gals did on this Polar flight, and the data collected were unprecedented. However, there were no polar bear sightings and there was some fog and low clouds to the West of Barrow from sea surface to at least 5,000 feet, plus they got stuck at 28,000 feet for an hour on the way up to 43,000 feet because of the air traffic conflicts. Oh well. Interestingly, there was a vast open water region West of Barrow and snow cover was very small for the season, according to the crew reports.