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Mt. Waialeale on Display

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Apr 12, 2011

The clouds draped Haupu Mountain along the Huleia River cupping Kauai’s east side, as I drove into Lihue early Friday morning—a detour to my office in order to stop at my tax guy’s place. (Note: my office is in my home, so this was definitely a detour but one the U.S. government mandates, so off I went.)

As I turned right onto Rice Street, I looked up and saw Mt. Waialeale smack in front of my face, standing sentinel, protecting Lihue town. I’ve traveled this road hundreds of times over the years, why did the appearance of this great mountain—receiving an average of 460 inches of rain per year and touted as the wettest spot on earth by some—suddenly grab my attention? It's not like a cataclysmic event recently jettisoned the mountain to its approximately 5,148 feet.

Mt. Waialeale emerged above sea level some five to six million years ago. She last erupted in a series of small and widely scattered vents during a period of renewed volcanism that took place as recently as 500,000 years ago.

My phone’s archives show that I called my husband at 8:03. “This is weird,” I remember saying to him. “Haupu is in clouds and Mt. Waialeale is clear.” A bit of weird weather had seemed to invade Kauai over the past week. A northeast ocean swell was sweeping through the island at the time and a waterspout swirled off the waters of Kapaa a couple days before.

"The mountain looks like a painted backdrop for a movie," I told my husband. "She looks fake."

In the center of Kauai, Mt. Waialeale, stands at 5,208-feet of elevation. There are rarely more than 50 days a year when you can see her in full relief. I'm told her 1) location, 2) shape and 3) height just might be the most important influence on the entire island’s weather.

Location. Kauai sits at the northern end of the Main Hawaiian Island chain, thus, bears the brunt of frontal systems that bring rainfall in winter.

Shape. Kauai’s round shape characteristic of a single shield volcano means no other land masses block or divert weather systems away from the peak of Mt. Waialeale. So, Waialeale catches all different types of weather systems throughout the entire year—tradewinds in summer and Kona lows in winter.

Height. Mt. Waialeale’s peak is just below the tradewind inversion later of 6,000 feet. This layer works like a lid to prevent cooler air from rising above 6,000 feet. As warm air rolls across the Pacific and hits the lower flanks of Mt. Waialeale, it rises up, cooling as it goes.  This process is called orographic lifting. When the air reaches its dew point, water vapor condenses to form clouds and rain begins to fall once those clouds reach their saturation point. Because clouds do not rise above this layer, the peak of Mt. Waialeale is almost always shrouded and wet.
 
You may hear about our characteristically wet windward and dry leeward weather in Hawaii. That phenomenon becomes a little more clear when you understand one other weather factor. It’s called the “rainshadow” effect. Kekaha a mere 15 miles west of Mt. Waiaelale on the leeward side of the island, receives less than 20 inches of rain each year. Because it sits in soggy Mt. Waialeale’s rain shadow.

Surveyors have been collecting rainfall measurements atop Mt. Waialeale since 1911, at first, accessing rain gauges by mule and switching to foot when the four-legged animals got bogged down and, starting in the early 1960s, relying on helicopters as the mode of transportation in and out of the summit of Mt. Waialeale. Now, remote sensors allow rainfall data to be available practically real-time.

At 8:13, I called my husband back, uttering a stream of words all husbands dread. “All the lights on the dashboard flashed. I pulled over and turned off the car. There’s smoke coming from under the hood and liquid draining from the engine.”

A few minutes later, I pulled out my beach chair from the trunk, propped my wireless keyboard and iPhone on my lap, put the dogs in a sit-down command beside me and started pecking out these words.

My husband arrived at 8:47 to collect me. Drops of rain freckled the screen of my iPhone and my arms. We loaded my gear and the dogs into the Jeep, a wrecker following behind us towing my car, and I gazed across the street at Mt. Waialeale. But she wasn’t there. She was cloaked in clouds, again, as usual.

 

Sent from my iPhone

 

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