Issue 11.6: December 2008/January 2009

Poli'ahu’s Gift

story by Genevive Bjorn

Altitude trumps latitude every time, but tall peaks are only one reason for the ironic presence of snow in tropical Hawai‘i. When cold fronts from the north meet below-freezing temperatures on the summits, they create a weather phenomenon called a “Kona low.” During the resulting storms, Poli‘ahu, the Hawaiian goddess of snow, poses in stark triumph however briefly—over the lava fields of her rival Pele, the goddess of fire.

Compared with the beach, temperatures at the summit of Haleakala or Mauna Kea are thirty to forty degrees cooler—cool enough to make snow possible year round. But it takes a severe Kona low to dust all four of Hawai‘i’s highest peaks: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Haleakala and Hualalai. If snow falls below 7,000 feet, as it did on Maui last January, a storm could make history.

But don’t ditch your surfboard for a snowboard just yet. Hawaiian snow is wet and heavy, according to Steve Businger, professor of meteorology at UH-Manoa. It’s more like soft balls of hail than the glorious powder found at ski resorts in Utah or Colorado.

Because the ocean surrounding the Islands is warm, snow at sea level in Hawai‘i is hard to imagine. But Dr. Businger theorizes that it could be possible if a severe cold front pushed far enough south, perhaps during a La Niña year like 2008, when the Pacific was already cooler than normal. According to one old newspaper archived at the Hale‘iwa Surf Museum, the impossible seems to have happened in the 1800s, before official weather records were kept: Snow fell in Honolulu.

Global climate change means that snow in Honolulu will grow increasingly unlikely. Warming is happening faster in the Arctic than in Hawai‘i, says Businger, which means fewer northern cold fronts and lighter snowfall on the high summits. But at least during our lifetimes, the ancient rivalry between Pele and Poli‘ahu will continue, and the Islands will remain one of the only places on Earth where you can ski a volcano in the morning and snorkel a coral reef in the afternoon. HH