It’s been six months. I’m sure you know that I am living in a simulated Martian habitat in Hawaii. But I haven’t actually written much about the habitat’s surroundings.
I’m not going to give an address; this is an isolation study and we don’t want visitors. So without being too specific, let me tell you about the area around the hab.
The hab is at ~8000′ elevation. This has had some physical effect, especially at first. We’ll all come home with molasses blood. However, the main impact is to our weather. We almost never have rainy days. That’s not to say that clouds don’t come visiting – we just tend to be above or in them. This leads to some incredible sunrises and sunsets, and some eerie foggy days.
We live about ten miles from the caldera of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is an active shield volcano. Once, about a month ago, we all woke up to a shaking as if a truck had rammed into the hab. We immediately went to the windows. Mauna Loa isn’t currently spewing lava, but the possibility came to mind. Turns out it was an earthquake, the strongest locally in 11 years.
The most recent eruption of Mauna Loa was in 1984. The most recent flows around the hab seem to be from at least 1935. I know this because while scouting skylights, a crewmate and I found what appeared to be a bomb half buried in the lava. Apparently the 1935 flow was headed towards Hilo, so they attempted to stop it by bombing it. This isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – the idea was to disrupt the lava tubes near the flow’s source and force the release of lava and gas needed to sustain the flow. The lava stopped short of Hilo, though opinions differ as to whether the bombing was to thank.
Anyway, disturbing the lava is very sensitive in Hawaiian culture. In fact, mythology has it that if you take lava rocks away from the Big Island, Pele (the goddess of volcanoes) will curse you. Apparently the tourist office receives boxes rocks sent by tourists who experience bad fortune after removing rocks from the island. We actually just received some ourselves (hi! we got your envelope!).
To disrupt the lava minimally, the habitat is located in a defunct quarry next to a defunct cinder cone. A cinder cone forms when a crack in the earth’s crust allows a magma chamber to vent explosively. Lava is flung into the air over a period of time, and builds up into a cone around the crack. The rocks found in and around a cinder cone tend to be deeply colored. This isn’t because of weathering, but because of the temperatures involved in this kind of eruption.
The rest of the area around the hab is covered by other lava flows. There are two main kinds. Pahoehoe flows are smooth and ropy, whereas ‘a’a flows are chunky and rough. The area around us is covered by some of each.
Pahoehoe is generally good walking. In fact, the flow that stretches from the cinder cone to the mini-LHR (more on that someday soon) is so nice to walk on that we nicknamed it “the pahoehoe highway”. But some pahoehoe flows are old and weathered. Traversing these carries the risk of punching through an inflation structure or a small tube with a poorly placed boot.
‘A’a flows are a different story entirely. Imagine that the ground is covered with styrofoam boulders ranging from the size of marbles to the size of small children. Now imagine that these boulders are covered with glass. Now imagine that the glass is covered with little lumps that break off randomly. So when you step, all the styrofoam balls roll around, then the lumps break off, and if you lose your footing, you fall on the pile of shards. That’s what ‘a’a is like to walk on. These full-body protective suits have an upside.
The dominant feature of our skyline is Mauna Kea. It’s our main landmark for navigation, by foot and by air. We can see the telescopes on top! Several times this year, a storm in the night has left us with the lovely view of Mauna Kea, snowcapped, smoke drifting from the base… wait, I should mention the military base.
We have one neighbor. Our neighbor is a military base. There seem to be artillery units constantly coming through to train. Rumbles around here are more often artillery than thunder. We don’t mind – every so often, they run night drills and we get a show.
I’ll leave you with one last sunset-clouds-lava-snowy-mauna-kea picture.