Snow in Hawai'i – here's what you need to know

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Where, why and when does it snow in Hawai'i?

Many people associate Hawai'i with tropical climate, sunshine all day long and no climatic differences whatsoever. But it's no conincidence that Mauna Kea is called "white mountain" in Hawaiian*. It's a reference to the occassional white snow blanket at its peak.

When it snows in Hawai'i, foreigners tend to be surprised and shocked. As their dream of impeccable white beaches and sun-kissed skin is, allegedly, crushed, they're struck by imaginary scenarios with snow-blanketed beaches and shivering surfers.

The reality looks much different.

Snow isn't uncommon for some parts of Hawai'i. It can snow in Hawai'i. Locals are used to it. In fact, it regularly snows there. Almost each year, the three highest summits receive snow. Even skiing and snowboarding is possible on Mauna Kea.

In this article you'll find out:

  • why snow in Hawai'i isn't unusal
  • why it snows in Hawai'i at all
  • where in Hawai'i it snows
  • where to learn about the basics of Hawaiian climate

Where does it snow in Hawai'i?

It's not the beaches where the snow falls, but on the summits of the highest mountain peaks:

  • Mauna Kea, Big Island – 13,803 feet (4,207 m)
  • Mauna Loa, Big Island – 13,679 feet (4,169 m)
  • Haleakalā, Maui – 10,023 feet (3,055 m)

These summits are (insanely) high, considering the islands are located in the middle of the Pacific. 

Snow accumulations are 12 inches (30 cm), or more, thick [3].

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Look at these satellite images [2] of the snow-capped peaks of Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in Hawai'i (13,803 feet / 4,207 meters):

Snow on Mauna Kea as seen from a satellite, image by NASA Earth Observatory

and Mauna Loa (13,679 feet / 4,169 meters):

Snow on Mauna Loa as seen from a satellite, image by NASA Earth Observatory 

Why does it snow in Hawai'i?

Responsible for snow are winter storms such as the "Kona low" [1] and instabilites at the trade wind inversion layer [3]+[4].

Hawai'i usually is under the influence of the dominant northeast trade winds and the resulting trade wind inversion layer which inhibits moist air to rise to the mountain peaks, acting as a cap for vertically moving air [4]. This isolates the air at the top of the volcanic peaks from the moist oceanic air at sea level, paired with dry descending air from the atmospheric circulation, resulting in dry peaks for most of the year.

The Kona low is a commonly associated with snow in Hawai'i. It's a winter storm that brings moisture-laden air from the southwest. The Kona low leads to heavy, torrential rain in lower elevations and snow on the summits as the air is forced up the mountains' slopes and temperatures drop in higher altitudes, as the trade wind inversion layer is weakened and/or disturbed [3]. The Kona low is often connected with a southward dip of the jet stream, bringing cold air from the north to the Central Pacific – this setup can lead to blizzard conditions over the peaks of the volcanoes [5]+[6]. 

When does it snow in Hawai'i?

With its position at about 20° north of the equator, just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Hawai'i experiences only two seasons: summer (May-October) and winter (November-April). The breach of the temperature inversion layer and the Kona low storm mainly occur during Hawaiian core winter from December to February.

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Learn the basics of Hawaiian climate in the HAWAIIAN ISLANDS course at EarthyUniversity.

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About the author

Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, podcast and e-letter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and podcast and the Stories of Earth Letter.

 

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Footnotes

*Another name and translation for Mauna Kea is Mauna a Wakea - the mountain of Wakea in ancient hawaiian traditions - learn more about the volcano Mauna Kea in this course.

Sources
Image credit

Banner: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens; acquired on February 6, 2021 by OLI (Operational Land Imager) (OLI) on Landsat 8; natural-color images of the “Big Island” of Hawai'i with abundant snow on its two tallest peaks; Trading Surfboards for Snowboards (nasa.gov)

Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, detailed: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, acquired on December 7th by OLI (Operational Land Imager) on Landsat 8; atural-color images; Snow Caps Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (nasa.gov)

Text

[1] https://www.accuweather.com/en/winter-weather/what-does-it-mean-when-a-kona-low-is-over-hawaii/1056808 

[2] Snow Caps Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (nasa.gov)

[3] Monitoring and projecting snow on Hawaii Island - Zhang - 2017 - Earth's Future - Wiley Online Library

[4] Giambelluca T.W. (2005) Trade Winds and the Trade Wind Inversion. In: Oliver J.E. (eds) Encyclopedia of World Climatology. Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences Series. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/1-4020-3266-8_210

[5] https://twitter.com/ScottDuncanWX/status/1470049784224530435

[6] https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/hawaii-weather-what-is-a-kona-low/336952

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