When the National Weather Service predicted that Hawaii could get more than 12 inches of snow over the weekend, the mere idea led to dramatic headlines, and thoughts of snow blanketing the beaches of Waikiki and surfers shivering in heavy boots and parkas.
But the wintry forecast tells a different story.
The snow is expected to fall on the Big Island summits, which rise to well over 11,000 feet — not an uncommon elevation for snow to fall, even on a tropical island.
The peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, where snow had been falling since Friday, rise to about 14,000 feet and often experience snow, according to local forecasters. The summits are home to space observatories. Visitors traveling to the peak of Mauna Kea are advised to use only four-wheel-drive vehicles because of the steep terrain.
“Bear in mind, there is no one who lives up there,” said Maureen Ballard, a Weather Service meteorologist in Honolulu. “We do get snow there pretty much every year.”
On social media, some locals expressed exasperation with the breathless reactions of those on the mainland.
“Guys. Guys. Calm down,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “I was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. We get snow on the top of Mauna Kea almost every winter.”
Still, a prediction of snow for Hawaii when much of the country had no such advisories surprised meteorologists around the country.
To illustrate the contrast, the Weather Service posted a map of the United States showing states where it had been hundreds or even thousands of days since a blizzard warning had been issued. The last time there was a blizzard warning in Hawaii was 2018, Ballard said.
The service warned people not to travel in the area unless there was an emergency.
“Travel should be restricted to emergencies only,” the agency said. “If you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle.”
The Weather Service said that the blizzard was expected to deliver wind gusts of more than 100 mph and that the snow was expected to last until Sunday at 6 a.m. local time.
The same storm system responsible for the blizzard had also brought rain to the region, a welcome sight in the Big Island, which has been hit by a severe drought.
But there was also potential for flooding, and the Weather Service issued a flood watch for the whole island chain through Tuesday.
“The blizzard is grabbing the national attention, but it’s not as impactful as the rain,” said Tom Birchard, a senior forecaster with the service.
Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said that little of the mountains’ surface was developed, so a winter blast comes with “a very limited set of effects, population-wise.”
“We’re watching with considerably more concern the rest of the storm system, because it’s got the possibility to produce flash floods and landslides,” he said.
Ballard said the cold front also led to lower temperatures than usual in Honolulu.
The overnight low early Saturday was 55 degrees, according to Birchard. The last time it had been that cold in December was in 1962, when the temperature fell to 54 degrees.
“We are having our version of a chill,” Ballard said. “I’m looking forward to sleeping today. I’ll get to cuddle under the blankets.”