Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth

We just had a week of intense volcanic emissions, called Vog, that covered the south Kohala Coast. This is the longest stretch of Vog we have had during 18 months of living here.  Actually, the rare occurrence of Vog is one the things we love about the Kohala Coast.  This Vog had a slightly rotten egg smell (caused by Hydrogen sulfide) combined with a “burnt rock” smell, like a ceramic kiln gives off at very high temperatures.  We had smelled rotten eggs a couple of times during our years in Hilo when the nearby Pu’u O'o vent was highly active and the wind was blowing toward Hilo.  But here in South Kohala, we are a long way from the active vents of Kilauea and a rotten egg smell at this distance is surprising.

Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth, is much closer to us.  The volcano covers half of Hawaii Island and has erupted 33 times since its first documented eruption in 1843. Its most recent eruption was from March 24 to April 15, 1984.  The heavy emissions covering the area appeared to be coming from Mauna Loa, but we assumed that it was just an illusion since Kilauea is behind Mauna Loa, but it got us looking more carefully at the web sites monitoring Mauna Loa.

We noticed tilt data from an instrument on the edge of Mauna Loa’s crater showing an increase over the past month. In early September, 350 earthquakes were detected in a 3-day period just west of Mauna Loa’s summit.  The earthquake swarm was in the same area where earthquakes occurred before Mauna Loa's 1975 and 1984 eruptions.  Steam is visible from a live camera located on the northeast rift zone of Mauna Loa’s Mokuʻāweoweo Caldera and the thermal camera shows the heat in the caldera.

The activity on Mauna Loa is not surprising and a future eruption is expected; the question is which direction lava will flow down the slopes. When Mauna Loa erupted in 1950, lava ran down its southwest side destroying  homes near Kailua-Kona.  When it last erupted in 1984, lava flooded the northeastern side of the mountain and stopped just outside Hilo.  In 2008, a magma bump on the southwestern side of Mauna Loa had risen eight inches in just three years.  At the time researchers speculated that the magma may cause a rip in the southwestern rift causing lava to flow toward the K'au District on the southeastern side of the island. Any direction of flow would endanger one or more communities on Hawaii Island.

Living on Hawaii Island, Mauna Loa is a beautiful sight worth keeping a close eye on.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reasons people leave Hawaii Island

We enjoy meeting newcomers to Hawaii Island and hearing their stories about moving and living on the island.   We have written about issues people have after moving to Hawaii in our Your Ideal Hawaii Move: A Guide for Moving to Hawaii Island book.  Incorrect assumptions newcomers have about island neighborhoods seem to be the major reason that their new lives in paradise do not work out.  Over the last 18 months we have met 7 families who recently moved into our neighborhood in South Kohala and returned to mainland within a year.  Though the reasons they left were similar to the reasons the people we met in Hilo and Kona left the island – family and jobs – the specifics are different.

Most of the families had two or more children.  They chose the resort neighborhood near the beach because the amenities and quiet lifestyle seemed perfect for their family.  They assumed that the  large upscale housing communities along the coast would have great schools nearby.  But the reality is, in spite of thousands of acres of million dollar homes and condo complexes,  very few people actually live here full time.  Most of the houses and condos are third and fourth homes of older wealthy people that visit only occasionally on holidays. We watched the few children here leave early, 6:30AM, and get dropped off by bus in the late afternoon.  The closest elementary school is up on a hill, about 15 miles away.  The public high schools are much farther. The closest high school is Kealakehe,  30 miles south in Kona about a 40 minute drive by car and longer by bus.  The other option is in Honoka’a about a 50 minute drive to the other side of the island.  

After the initial thrill of wearing sandals and shorts to school wears off, students and their parents learn about the tensions in the public schools on the island.   Though Pahoa and Keaau high schools in Puna have the most cases of violence and serious misconduct, Honoka’a and Kealakehe have problems as well.  Last year Kealakehe High School was closed for a couple of days after tensions between groups of  Polynesians escalated into a huge brawl among the students.  The number of offenses at Hawaii Island public high schools over the past 5 years was  published by the Hawaii Department of Education after an open records request. The schools are not like the mainland, where students represent nearby neighborhoods often with similar social and economic backgrounds.  The size and low population on the Big Island means that high schools serve students bused in from large geographic areas with different social, racial, and national backgrounds.  There are several highly rated private schools, which are also over 30 minutes to drive up  to Waimea.  They are quite pricey especially for families with several kids.  Annual high school tuition at HPA is $22,000 and Parker School is $13,800.  Living a far distance from other students in school adds to the difficultly of finding new friends.

The parents we met had not realized how important regular contact with their family and friends were to them until they moved. One mother who had lived in the same town her whole life and was sure it would be wonderful to live somewhere else said “I was amazed at how much I missed everyone, it really took me by surprise.”  They left the gorgeous weather and beautiful beaches behind in less than 12 months to restore their relationships with friends and return to a school system where they felt more comfortable.

We met several families who moved to our neighborhood after many years of a telecommuting job in California and Washington State. Within 6 months of their move, their companies changed their telecommuting policies and required them to show up at their office.  This has happened to so many people we now joke that many companies allow telecommuting, just not from Hawaii.

We find it interesting that none of families left Hawaii Island because of the high cost of living.  They left because assumptions they had made turned out not be true.  On the upside, they all seemed to have had a great experience during their short time here.  As they were leaving they called it their “Hawaii adventure.” We have concluded that they discovered that something about their life on the mainland turned out to be way more important than the island lifestyle that drew them to Hawaii. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Calculating the damage of the government shut down on Hawaii Island

When the US government shut down on October 1, 2013, news stories claimed that Hawaii would be one of the top states affected because of the number of federal employees, military bases, and federal contracts.  Oahu has been dramatically affected by the loss of income to so many residents, however, we are also seeing significant effects on here on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The biggest tourist site on the Big Island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park which normally has about  4,500 visitors a day. The park’s closure means a loss of $1.8 million a week from visitors plus the loss of income to workers at the park, concession stands, the newly opened Volcano House within the park, and other businesses. Other important Hawaiian sites on the island under federal control are also closed including  the Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Park, Puʻukoholā Heiau, and Kaloko Honokōhau National Historical Park.

Since the beginning of October, statistics from the Hawaii Tourism Authority have shown a sharp drop in visitor arrivals from the mainland  as compared to last year. The first week of shutdown, we saw lots of tour buses with just a few visitors on board; this week we have not seen any buses at all. We are beginning to expect a long term downturn in tourism from the mainland if this current shutdown is not resolved soon.

In addition to the economic impact of national parks and historic sites being closed, income on the Big Island has been lost by furloughs of federal workers  and projects funded by federal organizations (USDA, USGS, Department of Interior, Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, NASA, etc). that are delayed and may ultimately be cancelled.  The telescopes on Mauna Kea have been affected by the shutdown.  The Submillimeter Array, partially funded by the Smithsonian, has furloughed workers and the Gemini telescope will lose 50% of its funding if the shutdown continues past October. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s “Very Long Baseline Array” already closed its telescope on Mauna Kea due to the shutdown.

Since the shutdown, Hawaii Island has had a 24% increase in unemployment claims. Recent college graduates are shut out of government jobs and from even starting the testing and application process.

Thousands of families on Hawaii Island depend on Food stamps (SNAP) to help to survive on their part-time, minimum-wage jobs in the tourist and resort upkeep industry.  Food stamps not only feed families, they also support independent farmers and ranchers that get income from food stamps at local Farmer’s markets.  SNAP is expected to run out of money on November 1st.  That could mean the loss of food stamps for many Hawaii Island residents at the same time there are less jobs in tourism.