The impact of Big Island vog on the state of Hawaii

It was a quiet weekend for me with regard to this blog as we were in Kona for a  swimming meet. More on that later, in the meantime…

In his post, A Very Voggy Day, Andrew provides a nice link to the MODIS satellite which took  visual images of the island. The clouds are the really white, fluffy stuff. The murky, grey looking stuff is the vog which is generated by Kilauea and which the trade winds carry off to the rest of the island chain.

The image dramatically demonstrates how, when the trade winds are blowing, the best place to be is the east coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.

Astronomy with Lasers, Part II – or Canadians in Scotland

When I did the first part of this post, I said that if Keck were shooting lasers into the sky again I would try to get another night time image, but using the tripod. I did try again the following night but we were quite busy so I didn’t get the chance to get out until late. But good news, the laser was still firing, so I set up the camera on the tripod and went outside. I set the camera up and pointed roughly in the right direction (it was dark out there, you can see anything through the camera’s eyepiece!). I set the camera to its bulb setting and f/8 aperture, manual focus set to infinity and I was ready. I looked up and… no laser! WHAT? They’d switched it off! It was bloody freezing as well.

[I’m sorry, I have to tell this because as I write that phrase – “bloody freezing!” – it reminds me of a story. I studied for my PhD in Edinburgh and one of my fellow students was a Canadian named Steve Torchinsky. For obvious reasons I called him “The Torch”. He told me a story that has stuck with me, about when he was in an Edinburgh pub and a happy but drunken Scotsman started talking to him for no other reason than he was there (it happens). Then he found out The Torch was from Canada and exclaimed the following. Now you must understand, this is only very funny if you say the following in a drunken Scottish accent, otherwise it’s just merely amusing. The drunken Scotsman said, “Don’t talk to me aboot Kanada, Eye’ve bin to Kanada. It’s bloody freeezin‘ in Kanada. It’s so kold in Kanada, the snot FRO-OZE up me NO-OZE!” I love Scotland, and I love the Scottish people… especially the drunken ones. And yes, it is cold in Kanada.]

I got luckier the next day, but I kept one eye on the Keck while I set up the camera and tripod. The following was the result after a 3 minute bulb exposure at f/8.

Keck Laser

As I turned around to go back into the building I noticed that rising over in the East was the Southern Cross. So I set the camera up and exposed it for a minute. I was quite happy with the result, composed with the entrance to the JCMT.

Southern Cross

Summit Sunrise


The image above was taken a couple of nights ago as we finished our night shift, observing at the JCMT. It’s a panoramic image, three images going left to right – can you spot the join? – taken from the summit of Mauna Kea. In the distance is Mauna Loa.

For panoramic images I use a great piece of software called hugin. It’s donationware, but it is a great piece of software and although it doesn’t always produce a final stitch product (which has only happened to me a few times) when it works, it works better than any other piece of stitching software I have used  before. I must admit though, the exposure blending didn’t work marvelously well this time (you can see the joins, right?) probably because the light changes quite quickly at that time of day.

This was a hard exposure to get right because the ground is dark and the sky is bright. I had no choice really but to expose for the sky as that’s where all the interesting detail and colours are, and hope that I could recover the rest in my Lightroom. I like the final result.

Bloody hell, my room’s on fire!

Another restless night at the Hale Pohaku Resort & Hotel for Stray Astronomers. But there was a tinge of excitement to waking up. I thought there was a smell of sulphur (translation: ‘sulfur’) in the air and my first thought was “Blimey, the vog can’t be so bad that it’s climbed 9000 feet and is thick enough to penetrate into the buildings and rooms? ”

Now, we all know that your first thought of the day (even though it was 4pm, this was the start of my new day!) is never your best one, so I dismissed it and waited for the next, better, thought to arrive. “Fire, it smells like something is burning.” That was a better thought, for it was to turn out to be the truth. The next thought, my third, was worse than my first: “Bloody hell, my room’s on fire!”

In the back of my mind (and that’s where I keep my best thoughts, but they always hide away back there as whenever they venture out they get bullied on by the Crap-Thoughts-Gang), I knew that what I had just thought was b*ll*cks (translation: ‘b*llsh*t’… well, close enough).

Curiosity is probably one of my strongest instincts and it was that, rather than fear, which got me out of bed, showered (another round of the HP Shuffle) and out to investigate. As I climbed the stairs between the dorms and the main building there were white flakes falling.

Crap-Thoughts-Gang: Snow!! It’s snowing!! Come on Ant, let’s play!!

Back-of-my-mind-thoughts: (quietly) No it’s not. It’s ash. You go and play, we’re staying here.

Indeed it was a fire. A controlled fire we were told. Not-sure-who, were clearing bushes on the north-eastern slopes of Mauna Kea near to HP. The smoke was really thick and it did smell like a forest fire (I know, I’ve been caught in the middle of one). I thought of taking a picture but the smoke was so thick that a grey (translation: ‘gray’) picture wouldn’t have been that interesting. (Andrew over at A Darker View has a good image though which shows the smoke filled sky.) Anyway, another thought came to me: “It’s been 8 hours since I last ate.”

Actually, I think hunger must be my strongest instinct.

UPDATE: Andrew over at A Darker View has found confirmation that this is indeed a real fire, scorching some 60 acres near the Mana Road.

A poll on readability

A trusted and beloved family member has been complaining at me advising me on the font colours in this blog. The opinion is that the grey words are too hard to read against the dark background. Not wanting to disappoint in the first week of this new adventure of mine, I thought I would poll the readers on what they thought (and I really wanted to have an excuse to use this poll feature!!). Here it is:

Of course, I’m opening myself up here. My fragile ego is in your hands gentle reader. The reality could be that my ramblings are read (or merely looked at if koumera is correct) by just three people – at least we’ll get a result that way.

In the spirit of fairness (or something) I promise not to vote or rig the result in any way.

Halema`uma`u’s plume heads for Hilo

On the way down from the summit after finishing for the night we noticed something spectacular.

It wasn’t a great night – it was cloudy throughout which closed off the other optical and infrared telescopes, but because the JCMT is a submillimetre (i.e. sensitive to microwave radiation) telescope we can see through the clouds. However, the stability and ‘wetness’ of the atmosphere above us was poor, so although we could work it wasn’t great.

It was cloudy above but it was clear down to the coast and we had a great view of the volcano. In these pictures you can see the plume of volcanic emissions coming from the Halema`uma`u vent from the top of Kilauea volcano. Tom had some nice pictures of it close up when he went on his ‘shopping trip’ this weekend. The pictures below aren’t as clear as I would like (click on them to get a better look) as the Sun hadn’t fully risen yet so getting the right exposure (bright sky & dark ground) was tricky as I wanted to try and preserve some of the colour in the sky – I’ll see if I can improve them a bit when I get them into Lightroom on my return home.

I never cease to be humbled by the place we are privileged to call our workplace. It always gets me as we drive down from the summit, the fact that we are (usually) looking down onto the cloud tops rather than up. In these images we are looking down onto another volcano as its exhaust plume is carried away by the wind.

Ah, but notice, where is that plume heading? Not out to the ocean as usual. That’s because the trade winds that usually come in from the east and carry the vog (a uniquely Hawai’ian term, I believe, for ‘volcanic fog’) out to the ocean and beyond (and affecting the sky lines and respiratory systems of folks on our neighbour islands) are not there. Not this day. The winds were coming from the west (we call them ‘Kona winds’) and carrying the vog straight to Hilo!

I spoke with Mila that afternoon and she said that the vog was particularly bad that day…. no wonder.

The new Nikon Monster

There’s been a lot of fuss on the interweb this past couple of days with the release of Nikon’s newest camera, the D3X. It is being dubbed by several bloggers as a “digitial monster” – Nikon refer to is as a Digital Masterpiece. The basic specs are : 24.5 megapixels, full format (35.9mmx24mm) sensor, 138MB RAW files (!!!), 51-point AF system. There’s more but I’m running out of breadth. Why? The cost of the camera is $8000!

So forget about it! Not for mere mortals then, but clearly aimed at the high end of the market where pros could get that money back with the first image they take with the camera. I’m not really moaning at the price. It’s the market – the point is they can sell them at these prices otherwise they wouldn’t be marketing them so. And there are other camera manufacturers who do the same. For instance, you can pick up the Canon EOS-1Ds MarkIII for $6700 at B&H Photo. But if you want to go medium or large format, then check out the Hasselblad H3DII-39MS SLR Digital Camera Kit with 80mm Lens which you can pick up for a mere $44,000! Nice of them to throw in the 80mm kit lens…

It’s just like wanting the latest Porsche you see parked on the street from your 8-year old Honda Civic! I’m outside, looking in – somebody, please close the curtains! I know I shouldn’t be looking but there’s something vouyeristic about high end geek-and-gadgetary.

Comparisons are usually mundane, at times uninformative and often boring. But,  Jeff Revell at PhotoWalkPro has an interesting one (although, arguably, not very informative). Apparently, when the Kodak DCS420 Digital SLR came out in 1994, it cost $8000. It was at the very high end of digital imaging then (what happened Kodak?!) and it came with 1.5 megapixels (most crappy phones have more nowadays). Furthermore, we all know that geek-and-gadget gear gets cheaper as time and technology move on right? So, Jeff made this estimate: the D3X (and other camera’s of its monster-ilk) would have cost about $140,000 in 1994.

It’s a bloody bargain! By the way, Jeff also points out that you can pick up the DCS420 for about $69 on eBay.