Mauna Kea

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Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea observatories Mauna Kea observatories
Elevation 13,796 ft (4205 m)
Location United States


Coordinates 19°49'14.39"N 155°28'05.04"W
Range Hawaiʻian-Emperor seamount chain
Type Shield volcano
Last Eruption About 2460 BC ± 100 years
Approximate age About 400,000 years old

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in the U.S. state of State of Hawaii, one of five volcanoes which together form the island of Hawaiʻi. Mauna kea means "white mountain" in the Hawaiʻian language, a reference to its summit being regularly covered by snow in winter.

The peak of Mauna Kea is 13,796 ft (4205 m) above sea level but about 33,000 ft (10000 m) above its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It is the world's tallest mountain by this measure, taller than Mount Everest, which is the highest mountain above sea level.

Pu`u Wēkiu is the highest of the numerous cinder cones on the summit plateau. It is also the highest point in the state. Mauna Kea can be reached via the Saddle Road.

Physical Resources

Mauna Kea stands approximately 13,796 ft (4205 m), or 33,000 ft (10000 m) from the ocean floor. Three cinder cones (pu`u) make up the summit of Mauna Kea (Pu`u Hau`oki, Pu`u Wēkiu, Pu`u Haukea), collectively referred to as Pu`u o Kūkahau`ula. Mauna Kea is the highest point in the Pacific Basin and the highest island-mountain in the world. Mauna Kea was listed as a National Natural Landmark in 1972. There is also evidence of glaciers that covered nearly 27-square miles of the summit region during the Pleistocene Epoch (Ice Ages) approximately 18,000 years ago.


Magma pushed up through the oceanic crust began building Mauna Kea approximately 750,000 years ago. Throughout its building stages, lava flowed from three main rift zones, forming a volcano resembling a warrior's shield. At the end of the shield stage eruptions became more explosive, discharging magma referred to as tephra. These eruptions created the numerous cinder cones dotted across the highest elevations of Mauna Kea.

During the Pleistocene Epoch (Ice Ages) the summit region of Mauna Kea, was covered with glaciers. It is believed that melting of the glaciers was the first source of water for Lake Waiau.


Above 7,000 ft (2100 m), the upper slopes and summit region of Mauna Kea are classified as high alpine desert, above the trade wind inversion, where the air is dry and cool. During winter months (November-April) low-pressure systems tend to inhibit formation of the inversion layer, permitting increased precipitation, including snowfall at the summit. Annual precipitation ranges from 7-18 inches (18-46 cm) in the summit area to 12-20 inches (30-51 cm) at Hale Pōhaku.

Flora and Fauna

Mauna Kea can generally be divided into two ecosystems; the subalpine ecosystem, which is at 5,600 ft (1700 m) to 9,500 ft (2900 m), and the alpine ecosystem, which is occurs above 9,500 ft (2900 m). Hale Pōhaku occurs in the upper reaches of the subalpine ecosystem, while the Mauna Kea Science Reserve occurs in the alpine ecosystem.

Subalpine Flora and Fauna (Hale Pōhaku and Access Road)

The subalpine pant life consists of māmane forests and understory plants including; alpine hairgrass, pili uka, `āheahea, pūkiawe, nohoanu, kalamoho, `iwa`iwa, olali`i, littleleaf stenogyne, and mā`ohi`ohi. Hawai`i catchfly, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), has been observed there as well. Invasive weeds such as grasses and common mullein also inhabit the area and appear to be increasing in abundance.

Māmane forests once ranged from sea level on the leeward side of Mauna Kea up to the tree line, however they have been pushed back, and greatly decreased due to habitat alteration, and invasive plant and animal species that inhibit the growth of Māmane trees.

The subalpine animal life consists of a wide variety of native arthropods (insects, spiders), palila, `amakihi, `apapane, `elepaio, `kiapola`au, `i`iwi, as well as many species of non-native birds and mammals (e.g. cats, rats, barn owls, and mongoose).

Alpine Flora and Fauna (Mauna Kea Science Reserve)

Alpine plant and animal communities on Mauna Kea begin just above the treeline, at approximately 9,500 ft (2895.6 m), and rise to the summit of the mountain at 13,796 ft (4205 m). The alpine communities can be divided in shrublands, grasslands, and desert, though they all can be described as barren, and no clear line exists between any of the groups.

Alpine Shrublands and Grasslands

Alpine shrublands are inhabited mainly by pūkiawe, ōhelo, Mauna Kea dubautia, Hawaiʻian bentgrass, pili uka, Douglas' bladderfern, kalamoho, `olali`i, `iwa`iwa. Now rare, historically common species included `āhinahina (Mauna Kea Silversword), lava dubautia, `ōhelo papa (Hawaiʻian strawberry), `ena `ena, nohoanu and alpine tetramolopium. Non-Native invasive species include hairy cat's ear, sheep sorrel, common mullein, and fireweed.

Relatively few animals have been documented to frequent this region.

Mauna Kea Summit – Alpine Stone Desert

The plant community at the summit consists of mosses, lichens, and algae, and a limited number of vascular plants, predominantly the same species found in the alpine shrublands and grasslands.

Lichens and mosses have the most diversity of any of the plant life found at the summit. A survey of the summit found 21 species of lichens, plus five possible others. Around half of the lichen species found on Mauna Kea are endemic (found only in Hawai`i), two of which (Pseudephebe pubescens and Umbilicaria pacifica) are limited to Mauna Kea alone. Mosses occur where water availability is more consistent, such as under overhanging rocks and in shaded crevices or caves where snow melts slowly. A survey identified approximately 12 species most of which are indigenous to the Hawaiʻian Islands.

The animal community at the summit consists almost completely of arthropods. The arthropod community on the summit is highly unusual in that it is mostly made up of predators and scavengers, and there are very few species that rely on plants as their sole food source. Surveys conclude that 21 resident species, and 14 species of undetermined origin have been observed in this region.

Cultural Significance

Sacredness of Mauna Kea

As with other cultures throughout the world, early Polynesians believed their highest points of land were the most sacred. In Hawaiʻi, tradition tells us that the highest and most sacred places were Mauna Wai`ale`ale on Kaua`i; Mauna Ka`ala on O`ahu; Mauna Haleakalā on Maui; and Mauna Kea on Hawaiʻi. Mauna Kea, being the highest point throughout the Pacific, has been considered by many to be the most sacred of all. Mauna Kea was host to religious practices, study of the heavens, and tool making in the Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry.

The Highest Portal to the Hawaiʻian Universe

Mauna Kea is the mountain altar of Wākea, also known as the celestial father. Wākea is the ancestor of the indigenous Hawaiʻian race.

A Sacred Spiritual Burial Ground

According to traditional accounts, Pu`u Lilinoe, named for the goddess of mists and Lilinoe, was buried in a cave near the summit of Mauna Kea. Aside from this legend, there are many confirmed and suspected burial grounds of Kahuna (chiefs) and Ali`i (priests) on the upper slopes, and the summit platuea of Mauna Kea.

The Source of Life

Mauna Kea makes up a large part of the islands aquifer. It is believed that Poli`ahu (snow), Lilinoe (mist) and Waiau (ice) are the female waters in perpetual intercourse with Wākea for the furtherance of all life.


There are currently thirteen telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea. Nine of them are for optical and infrared astronomy, three are for submillimeter wavelength astronomy and one for radio astronomy. They include the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world (the Keck telescopes), the largest dedicated infrared telescope (UKIRT) and the largest submillimeter telescope in the world (the JCMT).

Viewing Time

The University of Hawai`i receives 10 to 15 percent of each telescope’s viewing time in place of a monetary rental fee. This telescope time is allotted to UH scientists to conduct research. Telescope organizations pay for operational and infrastructure development costs on Mauna Kea, such as roadway improvements, installation of fiber optics, operation of the Visitor Information Station, and snow removal.

See also

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