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Hawaii Faces Down Nearly Three Feet of Snow

And more of the white stuff is on its way to the Big Island’s tallest peaks

Grab your coats—this was the scene on Mauna Kea this morning. (Mauna Kea Weather Center )
smithsonian.com

With its pristine beaches and warm, humid weather, Hawaii has a reputation as a sunny paradise for a reason. But although the average temperature of the Big Island’s cold season is a balmy 81 degrees Fahrenheit, that doesn’t mean it’s immune to a bit of snow. As Elizabeth Weise and Doyle Rice report for USA Today, part of the Big Island is buried beneath more than two feet of snow.

Winter has hit Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, report Weise and Doyle. The volcano peaks, which are both well over 13,000 feet high, do get a seasonal snow cap, and the National Weather Service tells Weise and Doyle that they don’t always get snow during the winter. But his year is a snowy one. Despite warm temperatures below, a webcam of Mauna Kea looks like it could be recording the North Pole and not the top of an island better known for its surf and rainforests.

Because of its elevation, Mauna Kea is actually an alpine ecosystem. Much of the volcano is covered with a barren alpine desert with its own unique assembly of creatures, including 12 arthropods only found on the mountain. And it's not the only one. Despite being an active volcano, Mauna Loa has an alpine ecosystem, too, with at least 22 species of vegetation that are native to or have invaded the inhospitable environment.

A white snowcap is actually a retro look for both volcanoes. In the past, the peaks were known for having year-round snow; in 1886, explorer Isabella Bird wrote that “from the region of an endless summer the eye takes in the domain of an endless winter, where almost perpetual snow crowns the summit of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.” But over the years, a changing climate has altered the summits’ snowy looks and the ice caps have shrunk.

That’s bad news for the island’s plants and animals. As the Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT) reports, continued warming could negatively impact the island’s unique ecosystems, though the most significant impacts will be felt not on top of the mountains, but at lower elevations.

People who live below the peaks are currently feeling the effects of the weather system that has caused all that snow. The Big Island is under a flash flood watch with more rain in the forecast.

It could be a White Christmas above, but don’t look for snow down below. Though the island gets an occasional hailstorm or tornado, shaved ice is usually the only sign of snow in the lower elevations of the islands.

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