Building the Dream: The Science of Hawaii
I’ve already said I find Hawaii magical, even if I don’t necessarily believe in magic. I’ve talked about the moonbows, but here’s a rainbow just off our land. One day, in 2016, we’ll sit outside our house and maybe, if everything is right, we’ll see one like that again.
One more thing I find magical about Hawaii is the science. Beyond the beaches, flowing pastures, undulating hills and waves, it’s a place of discovery—not only ours. Polynesians arrived here in 400 A.D., wayfinding with hard work and little more than a steady gaze on the ocean swells, sun and stars. Even now that continues. The Hohonu Moana expedition earlier this year spent 65 days exploring 21,622 square miles around and beneath the Hawaiian Archipelago (an area larger than Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut combined), including as deep as 16,250 feet below the surface, on the ocean floor. Mark Twain called Hawaii “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean,” but they’re so much more than that. Speaking of building homes in Hawaii, here’s a deepwater hermit crab spotted on the expedition using an anemone as a shell:
There’s even a video of it here.
You can find Hawaii’s fascination for discovery all over the Big Island. Atop Mauna Kea, there’s another fleet—this one of telescopes—that has been involved in nearly every astronomical breakthrough in the last 50 years, including pinpointing the center of the Milky Way, finding black holes, and identifying potentially habitable new planets. Construction of a $1.4 billion, 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope—the name comes from the diameter of its lens, and this would be the most sensitive telescope on earth—is now on hold, while its permitting slogs through a larger controversy about whether the mountain is sacred, as some traditional Hawaiians believe, and what that means today on an island that embraces science while also recognizing Native Hawaiian rights. (A recent piece about Hawaii’s search for knowledge and the telescope’s role in that is here.) I hope it’s built. To know Hawaii is also to witness its sea of clouds, and have the chance to look above and beyond them into the universe.
Meanwhile, on Mauna Loa, the island’s other not-too-shabby 13,678-foot volcano, a team of six would-be astronauts is currently spending 12 months inside a NASA-funded ersatz space station at a balmy elevation of 8,200 feet in what might be construed as Mars-like surroundings to gauge the effects of extended isolation and extremely close quarters on space travelers in real life. That’s me standing outside the “habitat,” which is exactly where I’d prefer to be.
But the easiest place to see Hawaii’s embrace of science is simply along the beach at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, better known as NELHA. The 870-acre state-owned ocean science and technology park, just south of the Kona airport, is a research facility, business incubator and economic development office. It also has three deep-water pipelines that take advantage of the proximity of the continental shelf to draw water from 2,000 and 3,000 feet below the surface.
Some of that 39-degree water is used by tenants to grow spirulina, algae-based biofuels, and cold-water seafood species like abalone and oysters. But a half-dozen companies also desalinate and bottle the water, which they claim comes from the purest and most nutrient-rich source on the planet—which might actually be true. I’ve had the water. I’ve even carted 1.5-liter bottles of it in my luggage between the Big Island and Manhattan. Not surprisingly, it tastes like water, but with a blend of electrolytes and minerals that somehow make you feel better than normal, and I plan to drink copious amounts of it once we have a place to store those copious amounts in our garage, notwithstanding our new catchment tank, which on the inside I’ve just learned looks like this:
But you can skip the trip and buy deep-ocean water on Amazon, which is why Hawaii also has beaches.
Otherwise, NELHA is home to the world’s first commercial seahorse farm, an Infrasound Laboratory that monitors the Pacific to support the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) tower that currently produces 100 kilowatts of power from the temperature differential between deep-ocean and surface water (although the goal is to build 1-megawatt and then 100-megawatt towers, which might then be able to power 120,000 Hawaiian homes).
And then there’s Kona Cold Lobsters, which once served as a mid-trip rejuvenator for Maine and Canadian lobsters en-route to Japan, and now is the supplier of those same lobsters throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
Here’s a pair of very different views:
That last one’s from the Kamuela Provision Company at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, which also has one of the best views of any restaurant on the island, but admittedly isn’t part of the Friends of NELHA tour.
We’ll have our own science experiments on our land in North Kohala once the wind turbine and solar panels are in place, and we even start growing food to eat. But for now the science there is architecture and engineering. The rebar has been approved, the concrete is getting poured, and we’re aiming for the sky (okay, a lot lower since there are CC&Rs, after all), but you get the idea…