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Consequences of the Thirty Meter Telescope Project

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Mauna Kea Summit, Big Island, Hawaii, United States


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MARCH 16, 2023

To myself and many other students, Berkeley is a place to get involved in cutting-edge research. However, it’s necessary for us to consider the impacts of the university’s research tools and the implications of where the UC system’s money goes. How we conduct research matters too, not just the research itself. 

From the base of the ocean to its summit, Mauna Kea is considered the tallest mountain in the world. It is striking to behold, rich with unique ecosystems, wildlife, and ongoing cultural significance. For readers who love the outdoors, the environment, and history, Mauna Kea is certainly a fascinating place. 

The Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, project is a proposal to build a giant observatory on Mauna Kea that will be able to see even further into deep space. Astronomers hoped to utilize the TMT to answer questions about the history of the galaxy and star formation, indicating that this telescope has the potential to accelerate space research at an unprecedented rate. 

Developed by the TMT International Observatory LLC, the TMT relies on the funding of academic, research and other institutions, primarily the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. The UC System has invested 68 million dollars into the project as a way to further outer space research. The consequences of the Thirty Meter Telescope Project range from ecological conservation to the protection of a cultural site, topics that many students at Berkeley are involved with on campus.

The environmental impacts of the TMT project are significant. For example, the Palila is an endangered bird species whose home is in the mamane-naio forest, which is found only on Mauna Kea. The forest provides the habitat and food supply for the bird. Other endangered species that reside on the mountain include the Mauna Kea silversword. There are also many endemic species of Mauna Kea such as the flightless wēkiu bug, the Douglas’ bladderfern, and a Lithobius centipede. Endemic species can only survive in the habitat they are found in, meaning if Mauna Kea were no longer a viable home for these species, they would disappear. 

The mountain itself is a unique ecosystem. Also known as ‘the White Mountain’, the summit receives seasonal snow, a rarity in climate change. It is an aeolian ecosystem, meaning it is shaped by the winds. Construction on the mountain would disturb Mauna Kea’s rare geology. As climate change accelerates around the world, it’s important for us to protect these unique natural landscapes. 

In addition to ecological importance, Mauna Kea is a site of cultural significance. It is a sacred space which protectors, kia’i, have fought to preserve. To Native Hawaiians, the mountain is the ancestor for their people and the residence of the gods. Kia’i have resisted the TMT’s construction efforts through protests and letter writing campaigns. In July 2019, kapuna, or elders, and kia’i halted the TMT’s construction vehicles by blocking the only access road to the peak. Recently, Corrina Gould, the Ohlone people’s tribal leader, and Aunty Pua, one of the protectors of Mauna Kea, spoke at an ASUC Eco office-hosted teach-in about Mauna Kea and the UC system’s involvement with the TMT. To date, construction has not started on the TMT project, a testament to the efforts of protectors and activists.

You can get involved with the efforts to protect Mauna Kea at Berkeley. UCB Mauna Kea Protectors is a community of students who are passionate about advocating for Mauna Kea’s protection. If you resonate with their goals of spotlighting the Divest TMT movement, a campaign to urge the UC system to divest from the project, you can access more resources by searching up the “No Construction of the TMT Telescope on Mauna Kea” petition on change.org. The website Uprooted & Rising also has a page on the UC Divest campaign that has resources for taking action on this issue.

Contact Sia Agarwal at 


MARCH 20, 2023