Winter storm causes ‘minor damage’ to Maunakea observatories

  • Photo courtesy of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Ice and snow are seen Monday on the first floor inside Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope's Maunakea observatory after a winter storm blew open the front door and damaged a latch Sunday during a winter storm.
  • Photo courtesy of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Workers on Monday survey ice and snow left on the floor of the ground story of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope's observatory after a severe winter storm blew the front door open Sunday and damaged the door's latch.

A winter storm that caused reported wind gusts of 191 mph late Sunday afternoon at the Maunakea summit caused minor damage to at least two observatories, but didn’t affect operations, officials said.

Doug Simons, executive director of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said Tuesday that winds of about 150 mph blew the front door of the observatory open and damaged its latch.

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“It was a little frustrating to see that happen,” Simons said. “There’s no damage that I’m aware of, other than it got extremely cold on the first floor with the high winds blowing in. All we could really do was monitor from a distance. It was too dangerous to send anybody up.”

Simons said it was fortunate Maunakea Support Services “got a team up there in a very heavy vehicle to latch our door closed again” on Monday.

“Our guys just got up there late (Monday),” he said. “… The hinges were damaged. They had to do some repair work on what is actually a very heavy gauge door.”

Simons estimated the wind chill factor at the summit Sunday at about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. He added the first floor of the observatory was frozen after the wind blew the door open.

“It’s a five-floor building. The other floors weren’t that affected,” he said.

“I think about half the weather stations on Maunakea were offline Sunday night. I’ve never seen that before. That’s an indication of how harsh conditions were up there. That includes our station. That made it difficult, because we’re relying on those to tell us how fast the wind is blowing and how cold it’s getting. That’s information we need before we send people up there.”

Actual astronomical observations are made by computer from CFHT’s base station in Waimea.

“We observe remotely at night. There’s nobody up there at all,” Simons said. “We have engineers that go up there Monday through Friday for repairs and maintenance.”

University of Hawaii spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said there was “minor damage” to the roof at the university’s 2.2-meter telescope called UH88.

“There was definitely no major damage,” Meisenzahl said. “… The telescope is still operational. It was basically a roof over a storage room. Part of it peeled away, so it’s going to have to be repaired.”

Meisenzahl said the weather monitoring equipment at one of the observatories sustained damage but was fixed.

“Other than that, a couple of porta-potties were damaged; nothing spilled out,” he said. “But two of the porta-potties have to be replaced. There’s a total of six up on the summit for tourists and visitors who are up there.”

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, winds at the summit were 50 mph and the temperature was 27 degrees Fahrenheit — not as cold or windy as Sunday, but the Maunakea Summit Road remained closed because of potentially dangerous conditions.

“We had black ice maybe a quarter-mile downhill from the Visitor Information Station on the Maunakea Access Road. I had never, ever heard of that. That means it was really cold way down the mountain,” Simons said.

According to Meisenzahl, about midafternoon Monday, a white sport-utility vehicle ran off the road two or three switchbacks above Halepohaku and landed on its roof. The driver, an observatory staffer, was able to walk up to the road. Meisenzahl said the man wasn’t seriously hurt.

Emergency personnel, including a county helicopter, were called to respond.

A winter storm watch remains in effect for the summits of Maunakea and Mauna Loa through late Thursday night, with freezing snow and rain, as well as significant reductions in visibility possible.

“A winter storm watch means there is potential for significant snow, sleet or ice accumulations that may impact the summits. Anyone planning travel to the summits, including hikers and campers, should monitor the latest forecasts and consider postponing their trip until improved weather returns,” wrote lead forecaster Tom Birchard of the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

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Tribune-Herald reporter Tom Callis contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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