While the places around the United States with an inch or more of snow on the ground was well above normal this Christmas, one place that has been getting consistent White Christmases in recent years got another: the Big Island of Hawaii experienced a White Christmas, much to the delight of young and old who made an effort to escape the typical warm coastal communities of Hawaii’s largest island for a day of playing in the snow.
A powerful winter storm hit the entire state of Hawaii last week, with much of the severe weather lashing the Big Island of Hawaii on Monday.
Non-stop lightning flashed across the Big Island from a series of thunderstorms that stalled over the island. The intense lightning even triggered a wildfire. Park staff with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spotted a plume of smoke at 9:50 am Tuesday below Hilina Pali Lookout at the 2,000-foot elevation. Lightning from the recent storm sparked the fire, a rare occurrence in the park and throughout Hawaii. Most wildfires in Hawaii are caused by humans.
The severe thunderstorms were also responsible for accumulating hail on large parts of the island as well as destructive tropical storm and hurricane force wind gusts. The winds knocked down trees onto wires while some fierce gusts also snapped wires. Crews worked around the clock to restore power in time for Christmas Day to all.
The severe storm, which lashed most of the Aloha State for 48 hours beginning Sunday, also dumped extremely heavy rain in a short period of time. Places that get only a fraction of an inch of rain all year got well over an inch in a matter of a few hours. This heavy rain turned typically dry and sunny communities like Waikoloa Village on the Big Island’s west coast into a flooded mess, with streets turned into raging rapids, stranding people in their home or on area roads that suddenly became impassable due to rising flood waters.
But while much of Hawaii was dealing with heavy wind-whipped rains, hail, and frequent lightning and thunder, and entirely different kind of storm was brewing on the Big Island’s Summits.
While most people don’t associate the tropical paradise Hawaii is known for with snow, they’re surprised to learn that it does snow in the winter due to the elevation of the volcanic peaks on Hawaii and Maui islands. Mauna Kea is the highest of the bunch at 13,803 feet. Maui’s Haleakala is much lower at 10,023 feet. Because of that difference, Hawaii Island will see snow more frequently than the lower Maui Island. Just one storm in January 2020 dropped 2-3 feet of snow on Hawaii Island and created snow drifts that were far deeper. Another storm in January 2021 brought snowboarders and skiers out to the mountain by the dozens. A blizzard hit the Big Island last December, guaranteeing a White Christmas there for 2022.
And this year was no different: while thunderstorms were pelting lower elevations with rain and hail, the colder mountain tops were high enough and cold enough to be in prime snowmaking conditions. In addition to heavy snow and heavy freezing rain, the major winter storm also blasted Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa with extreme winds. The highest gust measured on Mauna Kea was 167 mph at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, one of a few telescopes that dot the otherwise uninhabited summit region of Hawaii’s tallest mountain.
The extreme winds, which would be equivalent to a Category 5 Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, created extreme snow drifts on the summit of Mauna Kea, with some greater than 10′ in spots. While snow plows and throwers have been busy keeping roads clear and dry, there are still some roadways that remain impassable , trapped under significant drifts of not only snow, but thick freezing rain that mixed in with the blizzard conditions to turn the snow cover into a concrete-like consistency.
Driving this beast may be the coolest…or perhaps coldest job on Hawaii. This is one of the giant snow plow/throwers resting on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea, where it’s been busy the last few days clearing the roads of deep snow from last weekend’s #blizzard. #HIwx pic.twitter.com/mXolTX1kG8
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 10, 2021
In addition to falling on Mauna Kea, snow also fell on the nearby summit of Mauna Loa, another volcanic mountain on the Big Island that was erupting lava earlier this month. While the eruption stopped almost 2 weeks ago, incredible volumes of lava that covered the landscape here remain very warm.
During the height of the blizzard conditions at Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea last Monday, the snow was able to stick and accumulate on what was the largest active fissure of the 2022 eruption. While snow has since melted around Mauna Loa’s caldera where the eruption first started, as well as the December 2022 flow surfaces, significant snow cover persists across much of the higher terrain of the huge volcanic mountain.
The recent eruption inundated the only road leading up towards the summit of Mauna Loa, Mauna Loa Access Road. DNLR says that a gate was constructed at the Mauna Loa Forest Reserve boundary on the Mauna Loa Access road and will be locked until further notice. This is the road that travels up to the HI-SEAS research facility and a NOAA weather and climate observatory from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road by locals on the Big Island.
The road leading up to a network of roads around telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea is known as the Mauna Kea Access Road. The road, patrolled by Mauna Kea Rangers at the 9,200 foot visitors station, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visit Information Station, was closed for much of last week so that snow removal crews could clear as much snow and ice as they could from the roadways there. While the Bomb Cyclone was blasting the Great Lakes and Northeast Regions on the day before Christmas Eve, road crews in Hawaii were able to finally open the roadway to telescope operators, scientists, and of course, local residents and tourists who wanted to see the Hawaiian snow first-hand.
If you’re in need of a #WhiteChristmas, it appears Hawaii is the place to be. We snapped these wintry scenes from atop #MaunaKea on the Big Island of #Hawaii where temperatures are struggling to get out of the 30s w/ lingering snow & ice pack from last Monday’s blizzard. #HIwx pic.twitter.com/U9d51Y3vcx
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 25, 2022
Mauna Kea Access Road is usually closed when four criteria is hit: the presence of any ice or snow on the roadway, winds more significant than 55 mph for more than 1 hour or the presence of any gusts greater than 65 mph, visibility dropping less than 50 feet, and any “emergent condition that makes the road unsafe for travel.”
During a pre-Christmas snowstorm last year, Reed from Kona, who handles security for private groups, and Carrie from Hilo, pursuing a Masters in Education with Victoria University in New Zealand, traveled to Mauna Kea today to bring back snow to the coast. “Whenever the snow gets thick to play in and when the roads are safe, you’ll find us here,” said Reed. He and Carrie were busy shoveling the fresh snow into a large cooler near the summit of Mauna Kea where snow drifts several feet deep were. “We’re packing up this snow and we’re going to go visit friends that couldn’t be here. We’re going to ambush them with snowballs,” Reed explained. Carrie added they also planned to construct a giant snowman for the occasion. Reed said the snow is a great excuse for getting out of the house and doing something.
Mauna Kea Rangers are strict with who can go to the snowy summit. They require vehicles with four-wheel drive, don’t allow children 13 or younger, and don’t allow pets. Due to those restrictions, many will travel to the summit to load up ice chests and pickup trucks with snow to haul down to family and friends at the coast that aren’t able to get to their due to the lack of an appropriate vehicle or any other restriction.
As is the case with most snowstorms, local residents line the snow-plowed roadways on Mauna Kea with shovels in-hand, grabbing as much snow as they can to bring to family and friends waiting for them at lower elevations. Due to the extreme winds tied to this most recent pre-Christmas blizzard, epic drifts line some roadways, making it easy for people to shovel snow into their vehicles for a quick getaway to warmer climates at lower altitudes.
In addition to taking snow down the mountain for fun, other winter sports enthusiasts bring their gear to Mauna Kea to get in some snow boarding or snow skiing.
Unfortunately, for such winter sports enthusiasts with this storm, the high ratio of freezing rain to snow is making for poor skiing conditions. However, as daily high temperatures rise into the upper 30’s and low 40’s, that hard icy mix will begin to soften, improving conditions for skiers and snow boarders, especially for afternoon runs. Even though this pre-Christmas 2022 storm didn’t create the best skiing conditions, it still did bring out the skiers and snowboarders. It’s likely even more will come out the next time it snows here –a relatively common occurrence during the winter months in Hawaii.
No more snow is in the forecast for Hawaii over the next week. According to the National Weather Service office in Honolulu, Hawaii on the island of Oahu, light to moderate trade winds are expected to bring increasing dry air and stability this week, ensuring continued dry conditions through the weekend. This fair weather will provide a great time for locals to explore the snowfall on Mauna Kea, while also giving those vacationing in Hawaii for Christmas and New Year’s to check out the tropical snowfall too.
View this post on Instagram