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Did Hawaii Just Receive Its Lowest Snowfall Ever?

Climate
A view from the entrance of Polipoli state park in Maui, which saw snow for perhaps the first time over the weekend. Avriette / CC BY-SA 3.0

A damaging storm pummeled the Hawaiian islands over the weekend, downing trees and power lines, raising 60-foot-waves, and potentially breaking records for wind speed, low temperatures and snowfall. And scientists say this is exactly the kind of extreme weather event made more likely by climate change.

"There's no place on the planet where (people) can expect to see conditions as they have been in the past," University of Hawaii at Mānoa Earth Sciences professor and Honolulu Climate Change Commission vice chair Chip Fletcher told USA Today of the weekend's storm.


The Hawaii Tourism Authority on Sunday had to warn visitors from snorkeling, surfing, hiking and swimming because of the storm, and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the Aloha state could see more weather patterns like this.

"We're going to be dealing with this much, much more in the future with our changing climate," Caldwell said at a Sunday press conference, according to USA Today.

Lowest Snowfall?

The element of the storm that has garnered the most attention has been the snowfall at surprisingly low elevations.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) wrote in a Facebook post that snow had been reported at Polipoli State Park in Maui "for perhaps the first time ever." The park is only 6,200 feet above sea level.

"It could also be the lowest elevation snow ever recorded in the state," Hawaii DLNR said.

National Weather Service (NWS) in Honolulu meteorologist Melissa Dye told the Huffington Post that the park saw four foot snow drifts.

"It's just real white like ice now, so it's just blowing around and drifting," she said.

However, The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang cautioned that the snow fall might have actually been graupel, a type of small hail. Weather balloon readings taken on the Big Island suggested the atmosphere was too warm for snow below 8,000 feet. However, Dye told the Huffington Post that temperatures at Polipoli must have hit freezing, though the NWS does not have a sensor there.

Snow fell inside Maui's Haleakala crater at an elevation of 6,000 feet on Feb. 19, 1903, The Washington Post reported.

Other Records

The weekend's storm did bring unusually low temperatures to go along with the unusually low snowfall.

Sensors at the summit of the Big Island's Mauna Kea recorded lows between minus-10 and minus-12 degrees Celsius (approximately 10.4 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit), The Washington Post reported. The lowest temperature ever recorded for the area was minus-11.1 degrees Celsius (approximately 12.02 degrees Fahrenheit) in May 1979.

A wind speed of 191 miles per hour was also recorded on Mauna Kea, which will be the highest in the state's history if verified. The weekend's storm was also one of the strongest wind storms to ever hit Hawaii.

The wind was combined with unusually high waves.

"The forecasters were spot on with their predictions. They're calling this an unprecedented event and we concur that we rarely if ever have seen the combination of record high on-shore waves, coupled with gale force winds," DLNR Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands administrator Sam Lemmo said in the DLNR Facebook post.

A Year of Extremes

The Washington Post pointed out that the weekend's storm follows a year of extreme weather for Hawaii:

  1. Between April 14 and 15 of 2018, the town of Hanalei on Kauai recorded 49.69 inches of rain, breaking the U.S. record for the most rain to fall in one place in 24 hours.
  2. Between Aug. 22 and 26, Hurricane Lane poured 52.02 inches of rain on Mountain View on the Big Island, narrowly beating the state's previous tropical rainfall record of 52 inches.
  3. Hawaii was impacted by three tropical cyclones in 2018: Hector, Lane and Olivia. This is the first time the state has weathered three such storms in a single season, but that could change as weather patterns that kept tropical cyclones south of the state change due to climate change.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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