HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
The Big Island has all but two of the world’s climate zones.
Except for Sahara-like deserts and Antarctic glaciers, there’s at least one of everything here, somewhere. You can live in just about whatever climate suits you best, and visit all the others by car.
The windward (Hamakua) side of Mauna Kea is wet, receiving from about 50 inches of rain a year in Honokaa, up to 120 or so in Hilo. That gives each of the gulches and hills, large and small, a rainforest ecosystem, with tall, mossy trees and birds in their canopy.
The Puna district, on the eastern flanks of Mauna Loa and Kilauea, also gets rain on the high end of the scale. Things grow fast in Puna: even the most recent lava flows are quickly overgrown by ferns and ohia trees.
All the way along the leeward (Kona) and southern (Ka’u) flanks of Mauna Loa, between about 1,000-3,000 feet elevation, there is a wide band of “dry forest” that’s not actually dry; but it does get much less precipitation than the windward side of the island. Trees there get most of their water from condensing clouds.
Below that, from roughly 500-1,500 feet elevation, Kona gets 40 or so inches of rain a year, but almost all of it falls in brief afternoon showers. The further makai you go in Kona, the drier it gets.
As you drive north from Kona, however, up the leeward coasts of Hualalai and the Kohala mountains, you’ll find a desert. Most of the old lava flows (even from the 19th century) are relatively barren, but since the 1970s, well-drilling has tapped a huge “lens” of fresh water underground, so lawn grasses and ornamental trees flourish, even on bone-dry black lava.
If hot weather doesn’t appeal to you, however, try cool Volcano Village, near the 4,000-foot summit of Kilauea. It will remind you of Oregon or Washington, with foggy mornings and chilly nights. There’s even frost in winter months, enabling apples and plums to set fruit.
But perhaps the most climatically complex town on the Big Island is Waimea (also called Kamuela). The eastern half of the town is cool, leafy, and reminiscent of Northern California. The western half, however, features dry, windswept grasslands, and looks a lot like Arizona.
Take your pick. On the Big Island you can (to paraphrase an old
song) live where the weather suits your clothes.