2011-ct-maunakea

Mauna Kea, IfA played a role in Nobel physics prize

Louise Good, Institute for Astronomy publications editor

John Tonry headshot

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Astronomer John Tonry, a camera designed and built at the Institute for Astronomy and an observatory on Mauna Kea all played a role in the work awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics this month.

Tonry was a member of one of the two large groups of astronomers whose leaders received the prize for discovering that the Universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate and will therefore last forever.

The discovery, first announced in 1998, grew out of scientists’ efforts to compare how fast the Universe is expanding now compared with its expansion billions of years ago. They expected to find that the expansion was slowing down, suggesting the possibility that the Universe would eventually stop expanding and then collapse in a “big crunch.”

To study the problem, astronomers searched for exploding stars called type 1a supernovae in very distant galaxies, which could be used to measure how far away other galaxies are.

In 1996, when the project began, the most sensitive system for doing this kind of research was a giant digital camera designed and built at IfA and mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope. The telescope had superb optics and was located on Mauna Kea, where the skies are uniquely clear and dark, an improvement over conditions in Chile, where the work had begun.

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope against pink-tinged sky

Tonry spent his nights observing on the telescope and his days analyzing the data. There was no time to waste because supernovae explode brightly and fade fast. He needed to relay the locations of such explosions quickly so other members of his team could observe them using a spectrometer mounted on one of the two 10-meter-diameter telescopes of the neighboring W. M. Keck Observatory. Their job was to measure the speed at which the galaxies were moving away from us as well as to confirm the nature of the exploding stars.

Because these faint, distant galaxies are so far away, their light must travel for billions of years to reach Earth, thus providing a glimpse of our Universe at a time when it was much younger than it is now.

What they discovered was considered surprising, even shocking: the distant galaxies were moving apart from each other more slowly than were the nearby galaxies. In other words, the Universe must be expanding faster now than it did in the past.

Team members were amazed. Their reaction was: “It couldn’t be. We had better recheck our calculations.” But it was, and it has since been confirmed by other observations.

What could cause the expansion to speed up? It couldn’t be gravity because gravity always pulls things together. It had to be a new kind of pressure, since named “dark energy.”

Interestingly, when Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity in 1915, one of his equations hinted at the existence of such a pressure, but it took nearly 100 years for its significance to be realized.

What is dark energy? No one knows. But UH scientists are involved in the search for the answer—both through particle physics experiments at giant collider laboratories abroad, and ongoing observations at large telescopes like as those on Mauna Kea.

A similar version of this article was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Oct. 16, 2011, and on the IfA website.

2011-ct-rain3

Who will chart the rain?

Raingage in Haleakalā, Maui. Photo credit: John DeLay

Anyone who lives in Hawai‘i knows that weather—or, more specifically, the likelihood of rain—is a very important part of everyday life, as evidenced by the sheer number of meteorologists and weather forecasters employed by local TV news stations. 

So it’s no surprise that one of the most frequently cited and referred to publications is the Rainfall Atlas of Hawai‘i, which was first published in 1986 by UH Mānoa Geography Professor Tom Giambelluca, Meteorology Professor Tom Schroeder and Michael Nullet, currently a Geography Research Assistant. The printed publication provided a set of maps of the spatial patterns of rainfall for the major Hawaiian Islands. 

Digital maps called rasters or grids were created based on the team’s analysis.
Fast forward 25 years, and Giambelluca is at it again. He, along with UH Mānoa Geography Assistant Professor Qi Chen and Masters’ student Abby Frazier, recently led a team of UH Mānoa researchers to create a new, interactive online website housing updated rainfall patterns. Giambelluca specializes in climate, climate change, and ecohydrology.

Developed to make rainfall maps, data and related information easily accessible, the website features high resolution downloadable digital maps for mean monthly and annual rainfall and uncertainty for each station used in the analysis, as well as files with information on each rain gage station. 

Mean Annual Rainfall for the State of Hawai‘i

Another unique component of the website is that it allows users to view the patterns of mean monthly and annual rainfall and corresponding uncertainty, zoom in on areas of particular interest, navigate to specific locations with the help of a choice of different base maps, and click on any location to get the mean annual rainfall and a graph and table of mean monthly rainfall. 

Over the course of the two-year project, rainfall measurements taken at over 1,000 stations were used as the principal source of information in the development of the rainfall maps. The maps represent the best estimates of the mean rainfall for the 30-year base period 1978-2007. However, for many reasons, it is not possible to determine the exact value of mean rainfall for any location. Therefore, for every map of mean rainfall, corresponding map of uncertainty is provided.

Knowledge of the mean rainfall patterns is critically important for a variety of meteorological, agricultural and resource management issues, including ground water and surface water development and protection, controlling and eradicating invasive species, protecting and restoring native ecosystems, and planning for the effects of global warming.  And, when you live in Hawai‘i and want to enjoy the outdoors as many days as possible, it’s simply invaluable.

To access the website, visit: http://rainfall.geography.hawaii.edu/.  Contact Giambelluca at thomas@hawaii.edu.

Top photo by Adam Levine/cogdog

The Pallada. Image courtesy Pallada.

Right on track

Hoisting up to Pallada the Japanese boat registered to Fukushima Prefecture and, presumably, washsed into the ocean during the March 11 tsunami. Image courtesy Pallada.
Ever since the devastating Japan tsunami on March 11, 2011, washed millions of tons of debris into the Pacific, scientists at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s International Pacific Research Center have been trying to track the trajectory of this debris that can threaten small ships and coastlines.

For nearly half a year, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and scientific coSmputer programmer Jan Hafner had only their state-of-the-art – but still untested – computer model of currents to speculate where the debris might end up. Now valuable sightings of the debris are reported from places where the model predicted.

On its homeward voyage from Honolulu to Vladivostok, the Russian sail training ship, the STS Pallada, warned by maps of the scientists’ model, found an array of unmistakable tsunami debris. Soon after passing Midway Islands, Pallada spotted surprising number of floating items. “On September 22, in position 31042,21 N and 174045,21 E, we picked up on board the Japanese fishing boat. Radioactivity level – normal, we’ve measured it with the Geiger counter,” wrote Natalia Borodina, information and education mate of the Pallada. “At the approaches to the mentioned position (maybe 10 – 15 minutes before) we also sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances.”

Borodina adds on September 27 that “we keep sighting everyday things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship.”

Map of Pallada's route

The map shows the stretch of Pallada’s route where debris was sighted between September 21 and 28, 2011. The red rhombus marks the location where the Japanese boat was found, and the red circle denotes maximum debris density experienced. Purple color shows the distribution of the tsunami debris in the SCUD model on September 25.

On October 8, the Pallada entered the port of Vladivostok. The most remarkable photo taken of the voyage is of a small fishing vessel about 20 feet long, which they were able to hoist up on to the Pallada. The markings on the wheel house of the boat show its home port to be in the Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the tsunami.

With the exact locations of some of the by now widely scattered debris, scientists can make more accurate projections about when the debris might arrive at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter. The debris that misses Midway will continue toward the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast.