HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Dry Winter Weather
It’s an “El Niño” winter, right now, and it’s a mixed blessing for Hawaii.
Every few years, starting around Christmastime, the warm equatorial currents of the Pacific shift northward, toward the Tropic of Cancer. This causes a region of “high pressure” to hover around the Hawaiian Islands, keeping normally cool, wet weather at bay, and provoking a shift in the usual wind pattern. Instead of tradewinds swooping down on us from the northeast, most breezes this winter are coming from the southeast and southwest, which are warmer than the northeast trades.
So the Big Island stays somewhat warmer, and a whole lot drier, in an El Niño winter than it does in “normal” years. North and South Kohala, and most of Ka’u, are in a drought; and even Puna and Hilo, which should have gotten a couple of feet of rain by now, have received only a few inches. The Hawaii County water department is warning residents who order a tanker-truckload of water for their parched catchment tanks that they may have to wait three or four days for its delivery.
An earthquake in October 2006 knocked out the major irrigation system for the Honoka’a area and North Kohala; some repairs have been made, but farmers are not yet receiving the amount of water they need to sustain their crops, and rainfall has been nowhere near sufficient to make up the difference.
And the shift in prevailing winds has given East Hawaii a taste of something that normally plagues Ka’u and South Kona: we’re getting Kilauea’s notorious “vog” [read all about vog here]. Some days in Hilo and Hamakua have been downright gray, with obscured views and occasional drifts of noticeably sulfurous fumes.
While an El Niño gives local folks great cause for concern, most visitors won’t be aware of this situation, and will construe the warm, dry days as a blessing for walking around and sightseeing: they might even pooh-pooh Hilo’s reputation for clouds and rain. But dry weather also means that streams are not flowing heavily; Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls and Umauma Falls are not as attractive, right now, as the guidebooks say they should be.
Other sights are more subtly affected. Waimea celebrated its annual Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival the first weekend in February. Normally, a wet and chilly winter would stimulate great masses of pink blossoms to festoon the dozens of trees that stretch along Church Row, and provide the thrilling experience that the Japanese call hanami – “viewing flowers” in Springtime. (Like the cherry trees in Washington DC, those in Waimea are ornamental, and do not produce edible fruit.)
This year being dry and warm, however, only a few sparse petals were on the branches; full bloom will likely not come for another two or three weeks. Of course, to put the best face on the situation, that means there’s still time to see them at their peak!