A significant blizzard will impact portions of Hawaii’s Big Island later today, bringing more than a foot of fresh snow, blowing snow, and 100 mph or stronger winds with it. Due to the seriousness of the winter storm, the National Weather Service has issued a Blizzard Warning starting 6pm local time tonight through to 6am Sunday morning for both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, Hawaii Island’s largest volcanic summits. In addition to those Blizzard Warnings, a High Wind Warning is up there too as well as Haleakala on neighboring Maui island. While snow isn’t expected on Maui, damaging winds are and residents and tourists should avoid traveling to the higher elevations until the winter storm passes.
According to the Honolulu office of the National Weather Service, people should avoid the Blizzard Warning areas on Hawaii Island. “Travel should be restricted to emergencies only. If you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle.” For the Blizzard Warning zones, they caution, ” Travel could be very difficult to impossible. Blowing snow will significantly reduce visibility at times, with periods of zero visibility.”
While Blizzards are an infrequent occurrence in tropical Hawaii, they do happen from time to time. Snow is a more regular phenomena though, with snow very likely during the winter months on the islands’ highest terrain. Snow can even fall on the volcanic peaks during other seasons throughout the year if a robust enough storm travels through the islands.
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. While many elsewhere in the country are surprised it snows at the tropical location, it’s a relatively common occurrence, especially during winter months when winter storms drop heavy precipitation in the Aloha State.
With the highest peaks in the state, Hawaii’s Big Island usually has a monopoly on accumulating snow. However, during some intense storms, enough cold air can be brought down closer to the surface, resulting in lower elevation snows elsewhere. While not as common as Big Island snow, snow can fall on Haleakalā on the island of Maui from time to time too, which rises several thousand feet shorter than the taller mountains on Hawaii.
After these snowstorms, people from around the world flock to the Big Island for the chance to ski and snowboard in the tropical snow. The snow covered mountain peaks are within an hour’s drive of Hawaii’s famous palm-tree lined beaches, giving outdoor sports enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy the surf and warmer weather at the coast and snowboard and deep snow at the volcanic peaks within the same day.
While heavy snow and strong winds are expected at higher elevations, rough weather is also in the forecast for lower elevations in Hawaii. A Flood Watch has been issued for the entire island chain. According to the National Weather Service, significant flooding may occur due to the overflow of streams and drainages. Roads in several areas may be closed, along with property damage in urban or low lying spots due to runoff. Landslides may also occur in areas with steep terrain.
The rough weather impacting Hawaii now is due to a frontal passage moving through the region. A cold front is expected to stall near Maui and the Big Island late today, bringing the potential for an extended period of heavy rainfall while a slow-moving “Kona Low” forms west of Kauai on Saturday. As the low develops, moisture associated with the front will spread back toward the west, bringing the threat of heavy rainfall to all islands, with this threat likely persisting well into next week. Several inches of rain could fall at lower elevations in the coming days as snow measured in feet accumulates on Hawaii Island’s tallest peaks.