Snow in Hawaii

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

The Hawaiian Islands are a very tropical place to most people. Year round warm weather is what people think of for this state located about 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland in the Pacific Ocean.

Despite the mild temperatures that most of the island enjoys, Hawaii does get some snow each year at higher elevations, mostly at peaks over 13,000 feet.

When does it snow in Hawaii?

Snow in Hawaii is usually associated with specific weather patterns. During the winter season, cold fronts from the north can bring lower temperatures to the Hawaiian Islands. When these cold fronts coincide with moist air and precipitation over the Pacific Ocean, the temperatures on the mountain summits can drop low enough to produce snow or ice.

Snowfall in Hawaii is not heavy like in many continental regions but rather light, and it often accumulates in patches or dustings.


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Kona Low Produces Snow in Hawaii

A natural-color satellite image of snow covering the peaks of two volcanos.
Snow on the peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on February 6, 2021. Image: Landsat 8, NASA.

Snowfall in Hawaii is frequently connected with a Kona low, a low-pressure system, which happens when winds that normally blow from the northeast shift and begin to blow from the southwest, over the islands’ leeward or “Kona” side.

The wind that blows in from the leeward side pulls in moisture from the Pacific Ocean that condenses into snow at the higher elevations of Hawaii. The snow produces from this effect is usually little more than a dusting that stays on the peaks of mountains in Hawaii for only a few days.

For example, between November 29 to December 1, 2023, a Kona Low brought 11 to 20 inches (28 to 51 centimeters) of rain to Hawaii as well as five inches (13 centimeters) of snowfall on the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, located on the Big Island.

Two side-by-side satellite images showing show on the peaks of volcanoes.
Landsat 9 satellite imagery showed remnants of the snow on December 5, 2023. Image: NASA, public domain.

Where does it snow in Hawaii?

Hawaii is home to three very tall volcanos: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Haleakala that reach over 9,000 feet in elevation. Mauna Kea, the tallest is 13,796 feet (4,205.0 meter). Mauna Loa is 13,679 feet (4,169 meters) and Haleakalā is 10,023 feet (3,055 meters).

An oblique view of Hawaii showing two snow-capped volcanoes.
A view of the snow-capped volcanoes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in Hawaii on December 20, 2022 taken from the International Space Station (ISS068-E-31770 ). Image; NASA, public domain.

Snowfall in Hawaii tends to happen at elevations higher than 11,000 feet which mean it is typically limited to the two highest peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. In fact, Mauna Kea, which is shortened from Maun a Wākea , is Hawaiian for “white mountain” after the seasonal snowfall that can be seen at the peak. While snow will regularly fall on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea each year, snow rarely falls on Haleakalā.

The first week of December in 2021 brought another Kona low that blanketed the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The storm also brought heavy rains and a state of emergency was declared on December 6, 2021 for Hawaii due to flooding and road damage.

Snow blanketing the peak of a volcano in Hawaii as seen in this satellite image.
Snow fall blanketing the peak of Mauna Kea on December 6, 2021. Image: Landsat 8, NASA.

Timelapse Video of Snow on Mauna Loa

This video from the USGS depicts a time-lapse sequence from sunrise to sunset on Tuesday, January 28, using images from the webcam at the summit of Mauna Loa Volcano (13,680 ft above sea level). This short video highlights how quickly changes in weather conditions can happen in Hawai’i’s alpine zones.

The day starts clear with views across the peak caldera (Moku’weoweo) that quickly gives way to dense clouds and continuous snowfall as a winter storm approaches.

References

Carlowicz, M. (2021, February 8). Trading surfboards for snowboards. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147895/trading-surfboards-for-snowboards

Pratt, S. E. (2021, December 8). Snow caps Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/149189/snow-caps-mauna-kea-and-mauna-loa

Zhang, C., Hamilton, K., & Wang, Y. (2017). Monitoring and projecting snow on Hawaii Island. Earth’s Future5(5), 436-448. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016EF000478

This article was originally published on December 10, 2021 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.