The State of Aloha

In case you didn’t see it yourself, I’m sure someone told you about it. And yes, there are social media posts galore. In case you haven’t read the paper, watched the news, checked your Facebook account, or in case you haven’t looked up, there was snow here on Maui — for days on end.

When it does snow around here, it’s an event. Nearly everyone on the island is excited about the festive precipitation. (Tourists are probably less than thrilled at the chilly weather.)

I can still remember the first time I ever saw snow. I was a student at Haiku Elementary. It was wintertime and it was cold and the skies were a dark, battleship gray.

It was during morning recess when some of the clouds parted and we could see Haleakala from our playground. The icy, white snow on the summit was astounding. Everyone was shrieking with excitement.

Later that day my classmates were talking about bugging our parents to drive up to the summit right then and there and go play in it or try to bring it back. I remember we didn’t get to go up there for some reason or another, but I do remember seeing truckloads of the stuff being hauled back down the mountain.

That was the same winter I actually got to hold some of it in my hands. I was at Five Corners and saw that some had fallen off a truck and was sitting on the ground melting. I begged my parents to pull over so we could examine it. Of course, I wasn’t alone in my fascination.

The first inhabitants of these islands came from other tropical climes. The Native Hawaiians looked upon these mountains and incorporated the snows with their religion and mythology.

Author William D. Westervelt, a chronicler of Hawaiian legends and lore, writes of “four maidens with white mantles.” Westervelt wrote that these women were spirits or goddesses believed to inhabit the summits of the large mountains on the Big Island and Maui.

They all were clad with white kapa cloaks and would drape the summits from time to time with snow, or hau kea. The first people to live on these islands came from other islands farther south. They had never seen snow before.

These ladies are goddesses associated with four different mountains in Hawaii. Three are on the Big Island: Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The other is Haleakala and that woman is known as Lilinoe. The most well-known of the four is Poli’ahu, who visited other mountains but calls Mauna Kea her home.

A famous tale describes the ferocious rivalry with Madame Pele on the Big Island. The conflict ended in a stalemate. It was agreed that Pele would stay away from Mauna Kea and Poli’ahu would refrain from visiting Kilauea. And that’s why there’s snow on the former and never on the latter.

And so the islands and islanders are not strangers to winter weather. In fact, Haleakala holds a record of its own. On Feb. 2, 1936, our own House of the Sun saw a record snowfall of 6.5 inches in a single day.

But this year saw some records too. The snows on Haleakala descended farther down than ever before. This was the first time in our state’s history in which snow appeared at a state park, Polipoli. This is also the first time in a long time where the snow atop of Haleakala actually stuck around.

It wasn’t that hard to believe. This winter has been the coldest for the islands in recent memory, and it might even be the coldest. Last week Monday, a little after midnight, the Mauna Kea Weather Center reported the temperature dipping to an all-time low. The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility recorded a frigid 9 degrees. Another weather recorder on Mauna Kea came up with a similar temperature.

That would make it the lowest temperature recorded in the state. It would beat the official record of 12 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded atop Mauna Kea on May 17, 1979.

But the new low remains unofficial. Scientists at the Climate Extremes Committee through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and our own state climatologist (yes, there is such a job) have to meet and evaluate the temperatures before declaring it accurate enough to find that on Feb. 11, 2019, a new record low temperature was recorded in the islands. Poli’ahu must be pleased.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”