Hurricane season in Hawaii usually falls between the months of June and November. However, as exemplified by Hurricane Lane, hurricanes, or tropical cyclones, rarely strike the Hawaiian islands directly. In fact, in nearly 150 years, only three hurricanes have reached landfall in Hawaii. The most recent was Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which devastated Kauai, caused $1.8 billion in damages and killed six people. Prior to that only two other hurricanes had reached landfall in Hawaii. Hurricane Dot arrived in 1959 and an unnamed storm occurred in 1871. According to the NOAA historical hurricane database, from 1950 – 2017, only 14 hurricanes have ever passed within 200 miles of Hawaii.
When tropical cyclones approach Hawaii, they tend to come from the southeast. They’ve also been known to come from the southwest, but rarely from the northeast or due east, where much cooler water comes down from Alaska on the west coast of North America. A year with an El Niño event, however, can implicate this model. In fact, hurricane expert Michael Lowry told the Weather Channel there is a 35% chance of a hurricane coming within 100 miles of Hawaii in an El Niño year vs. 22% in a non-El Niño year.
When asking why hurricanes rarely reach landfall in Hawaii, it’s important to see the big picture. By the big picture, we mean the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is over 62 million square miles and covers over 30% of the earth. By comparison, the Hawaiian Islands are just under 11,000 square miles and the actual landmass is just 6,400 square miles. In other words, a hurricane finding Hawaii is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Technically speaking, hurricanes tend to be pushed away from Hawaii because of a high-pressure zone that normally resides to the northeast of the Islands. It’s this high-pressure zone that keeps Hawaii’s weather fairly consistent throughout the year. How consistent is the temperature in Lahaina? On average, the coldest month is January, with high temperatures of 82 and average lows of 64 with 3 days of rain. By contrast, the warmest month is August averaging 88/64 and 0 days of rain.
Another reason hurricanes miss Hawaii is the cool waters surrounding the islands. OK, the water isn’t that cool, but in order to form, hurricanes need water temperatures to be least 80 degrees. During the winter and spring, Hawaii’s waters average 77 degrees. By summer, those same waters can reach 82 degrees. In other words, hurricanes aren’t even physically possible in Hawaii for over half of the year.
Finally, if you’ve ever visited Maui, you’re sure to have noticed the wind. These winds, which help to keep us from overheating, also act to separate thunderstorms from the center of the approaching hurricane resulting in a lot of rain, but rarely a full-blown hurricane.
Hurricane Lane was certainly a close call, the closest we’ve seen since 1992. It ended up dropping 52 inches of rain, the second highest rainfall total from a tropical cyclone since 1950, behind only Hurricane Harvey’s 60 inches on Texas in 2017. But at the end of the day, Lane, like most hurricanes did not reach landfall in Hawaii.
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