Did you know Mauna Kea has permafrost? ... Well, it might not have it for much longer

Did you know Mauna Kea has permafrost? ... Well, it might not have it for much longer
Mauna Kea gets snow, sure. But did you know it also has permafrost? (Image: UH News)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Most of the time, Norbert Schörghofer’s research focus is out of this world.

He studies Mars, the asteroid Ceres, the Moon.

But the University of Hawaii planetary scientist has also taken an interest in an unusual landscape closer to home: The summit of Mauna Kea.

It’s there, at the highest elevations in the state, where Schörghofer studies permafrost.

You read that right.

On a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, this researcher and his team are studying layers of ice and soil that are always frozen ― as part of a phenomenon typically associated with the Arctic.

Permafrost atop Mauna Kea is shrinking and could soon disappear. (Image: Office of Maunakea Management)
Permafrost atop Mauna Kea is shrinking and could soon disappear. (Image: Office of Maunakea Management)

In fact, the permafrost atop Mauna Kea was discovered in the late 1960s.

And thankfully, one of the permafrost fields was meticulously measured back then. That’s vital to Schörghofer’s research because one of the things he’s trying to figure out is how much the permafrost has retreated as temperatures rise around the globe ― and faster at higher elevations.

As part of a new study for the Office of Maunakea Management, Schörghofer found that the permafrost located in one of two cinder cones on Mauna Kea is now roughly one third of the area it was in the early 1970s.

In 1974, when temperatures atop Mauna Kea were believed to have been about 1.8 degrees cooler on average than today, the permafrost in Puuwekiu Crater covered about 6,500 square feet and was approximately 36 feet deep.

In 2016, the permafrost was less than 2,150 square feet and 20 feet deep.

A second permafrost location in Puuhaukea Crater is about 165 feet wide and at least 33 feet deep.

“Nobody knows how old it is. It might be very old,” Schörghofer said. “We do know that it’s disappearing.”

[Read more: New study shows ‘massive ice loss’ in Mauna Loa ice cave]

When the permafrost is gone entirely is anyone’s guess.

But before that happens Schörghofer is trying to document it as much as he can. One of the central questions he’s sought to answer: How in the world does permafrost develop in Hawaii?

While it’s very chilly on Mauna Kea, with snow a regular sight in the winter, it’s actually puzzling that it stays cold enough through the year for permafrost.

Schörghofer and his team found that there are several factors at play that allow the permafrost to stick around, including shadowing in the cinder cones and cold air getting “trapped between boulders," further dropping temperatures in the areas where permafrost developed.

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