While many places have had a delayed start to the snow season in the eastern United States, one unexpected place is getting a jump on wintry precipitation: Hawaii. The start of the meteorological winter is December 1, which coincided with a storm system that brought flash flooding to portions of Hawaii’s Big Island. While soaking rains drenched cities like Hilo, the highest peaks of the island were treated to fresh snow. Several inches of rain were measured on the Big Island’s eastern slopes. But high above them, measurable snow fell, bringing wintry scenes to a state more famous for its tropical beaches.
Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, at 13,803 feet and 13,678 feet respectively, rise well above the warm tropical beaches that surround the edges of the island. While it’s the state closest to the Equator, the high elevation of Hawaii’s Big Island peaks are high enough to tangle with cold air found high in the sky. In the winter, storms frequently tap into cold air to produce snow on the volcanic peaks while soaking rains fall at lower elevations. Snow can also fall during other times of the year; strong storms to move over the islands have been known to bring down just enough cold air to produce quick snow even in summer months.
This latest storm prompted the National Weather Service office in Honolulu, Hawaii to issue Winter Storm Watches, Winter Storm Warnings, and Winter Weather Advisories over a period stretching from the end of November to the start of December. With weather advisories issued and road conditions poor, access roads on Mauna Kea were closed. With the road free of snow and ice, winds fair, and visibility high, authorities re-opened the roads on December 2.
With the roads opened on December 2, tourists lined the Mauna Kea Visitors Center parking lots which sit at the 9,200 foot elevation. After guests become acclimated to the high altitude there, they set out for the top of the snow covered peaks.
The first snowfall of the meteorological winter was a light one, with just a few inches of snow dusting the highest peaks of Mauna Kea. Various telescopes and observation sites that dot the landscape on top of the volcano were surrounded in a light coating of powdery snow. While snow drifts of a few inches coat patches of the ground, roadways are free of any snow and ice. Near one telescope, next to a “Danger: Falling Ice, Keep Back” sign, a small snowman sits proud overlooking the summit, peering out to the telescopes in the area.
Much more snow is likely to fall in the coming weeks as colder air and more moisture return to the Aloha State for winter. Last winter, snow could be measured in feet in the area, giving locals and tourists an opportunity to enjoy winter sports more typical of Colorado than a tropical paradise.