Having dodged lava flows, NOAA's Mauna Loa research facility to get upgrades

Scientific measurements continue at University of Hawaii observatory

Air samples from NOAA's Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii provide important data for climate scientists around the world. On Thursday, NOAA announced that analysis of data from their global sampling network showed that levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane recorded the largest annual increase ever observed in 2021, while carbon dioxide continued to increase at historically high rates.

Air samples from NOAA's Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii provide important greenhouse gas data for climate scientists around the world. (Image credit: NOAA)

NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, the benchmark sampling site for monitoring global climate change, is slated to undergo a major renovation and facility upgrade once road access is restored over lava flows produced by the recent eruption of Mauna Loa volcano, NOAA announced today. 

The redevelopment project will modernize the site's aging infrastructure and renovate the historic Keeling building. Plans call for increased solar generation and installation of a battery power backup system to make the observatory more energy efficient and more resilient to future natural disasters. The project will increase the observatory’s scientific capabilities and create new opportunities for research collaboration.

“Mauna Loa is a premier international research facility,” said Ariel Stein, acting director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. “This project will honor our history as we upgrade our scientific facilities, make them energy-efficient and generate power on-site to reduce the risk of disruption. This will provide a more productive and effective research campus for NOAA and our scientific partners for decades to come.”  

At an elevation of 11,141 feet on the north flank of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, scientists at the observatory have compiled the longest record of rising levels of greenhouse gases driving global warming. The Mauna Loa Observatory supports hundreds of measurements that are essential for scientists around the world working together to understand how the planet’s climate system is changing.

The Mauna Loa Observatory has operated since 1957 and consists of over a dozen small research buildings across an eight-acre campus. Charles David Keeling offsite link of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography initiated carbon dioxide measurements at the site in 1958. NOAA’s carbon dioxide measurements began in 1974. 

Mauna Loa is one of four baseline observatories stretching from the Arctic village of Utqiagvik, Alaska to the South Pole, which form the foundation of NOAA's global network of atmospheric observation sites. Data is carefully analyzed and compiled in archives, like the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, and made available to scientists worldwide.

Elements of the renovation project include: refurbishing the Keeling building; adding a new staff office area; updating the site’s workshop and staging area; and dedicating more space for cooperative research near the base of a new 130-foot tall sampling tower. The latter will replace an on-site, aging 120-foot sampling tower. Building designs will maximize roof-top solar energy generation. A new site-wide power and grounding distribution system will be installed, along with fiber-optic infrastructure. Obsolete facilities will be removed.

Lava covering the access road to the NOAA Mauna Loa Baseline Observatory during the 2022 Mauna Loa eruption.
Lava covering the access road to the NOAA Mauna Loa Baseline Observatory during the 2022 Mauna Loa eruption. (NOAA)

Observatory operations are currently curtailed by fresh lava flows from Mauna Loa’s November volcanic eruption, which buried about 6,000 feet of the access road and electric poles under as much as 30 feet of lava. While the facility lost power, the campus itself was not threatened. It will be several months before the lava is cool enough for engineers to re-establish the roadway. 

To maintain the continuity of long-term observations, NOAA contracted with a local helicopter company, Paradise Helicopters, which began weekly flights to the site starting December 21, 2022, to collect air samples via a portable, battery-powered flask system. The flask samples are then shipped to and analyzed at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. In January 2023, a battery storage system was delivered by helicopter and will be linked to existing solar panels to allow for the restart of some of the facility’s important sampling instrumentation. 

A rectangular tube is attached to the banister of a deck on a building. The deck overlooks mountains with some snow cover and a two lane road. Cloud cover is below the deck height, down in the valleys.
Photo of an air intake tube at Maunakea Observatories in Hawaii. The system was installed on December 8, 2022. (NOAA)

NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography offsite link, which make independent, complimentary on-site measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory, are currently taking daily greenhouse gas measurements from a temporary location at the University of Hawaii astronomical observatory on Maunakea. Maunakea is where the other giant shield volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is located.

The timeline for renovation and facility upgrades will depend on when access to the road leading to the Mauna Loa facility is restored. 

For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, (303) 819-7409, or theo.stein@noaa.gov.