The Many Seasons In Hawaii

Don Chapman
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November 09, 2005
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Our seasons changed last week. At least, they did in my neck of the woods in Kaneohe. Rising for a pre-work walk, I felt a chill. The temperature in the house had dropped all the way to 75 degrees, down from the 78-79 of the past month or so! Outside the air was even cooler, and the wind was brisk. For the first time since March, I pulled on a windbreaker.

OK, so three or four degrees may not seem like much of a season change for people in other climes. And, as it turns out, last week also marked the 26th anniversary of the day that my byline first appeared in a Hawaii newspaper. The seasons were probably changing about that time too, but having just come over from California, this malihini sure didn’t notice it.

Anyway, coming back from that walk I turned on CNN and caught a feature touting Iowa as a great place to retire - cheap cost of living “and some people really want to experience the four seasons.”

If one of those seasons is Snow-Shovels-and-Mukluks, you can have it.

Yup, 26 years later, this former skiing writer has become a total weather wuss. I like warm.

And for those of us in these islands, three or four degrees does indeed constitute a change in seasons. In fact, traditional Hawaiian culture counted 13 different seasons in the 12 months of the lunar year - based on air temperature, wind direction, which fish were biting and what plants were blooming or producing fruit. “When the wiliwili blossoms,” says an old proverb, “the shark bites.”

I say in that season, enjoy the flowers and take a walk on the beach.

My favorite season just might be lychee season. Kona weather season is probably the least fave.

There are vagaries in weather patterns from year to year, of course, but it seems to me that last week’s seasonal cooling came a week or two later than usual.

And in August, I spotted my first golden plover making its return from Alaska a week or so later than usual. Somehow, scientists say, the little birds can sense when winter is approaching, and won’t leave until they detect an imminent freeze.

Hmmm ...

I’ve been doing some reading on the subject of climate change, and scientists say Alaska is definitely getting warmer. Native Alaskans who for centuries depended on thick ice formations over the sea - to hunt polar bear, which in turn are hunting seals - now find that the ice freezes later in the year and melts earlier in the spring. A generation ago the ice regularly froze to 12-14 feet thick. Recently it’s been barely eight. Humans are not the only ones suffering. Polar bears, weighing less than they did a few years ago, are now moving south, often into populated areas, in desperate search of food. And villages along the water are being forced to move because the sea is rising.

Likewise for islanders on some South Pacific atolls.

How much longer before Hawaii’s current shorelines begin taking on water?

Are you ready for some New Orleans-style levees and dikes?

The popular, and I’m coming to believe simplistic, explanation is that the Greenhouse Effect is to blame - humans burning fossil fuels and spewing gases into the air is heating up our atmosphere. I believe that it is in fact happening, and that as India and China become more developed and burn exponentially more gas, oil and coal, the problem will only worsen.

But there seems to be something bigger going on here as well.

Scientists at the respected Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC-San Diego have discovered what they believe is an 18,000-year weather cycle driven by ocean currents - especially the ability to “vertically mix” sea water; that is, to bring very cold water to the surface. That process, when spread over many years and over large expanses of ocean, cools the air, affecting weather.

And we know in Hawaii that our seasons are driven by the surrounding ocean’s “thermal lag,” the couple of months between the shortest and longest days of the year and the coldest and warmest days of the year.

The Scripps scientists theorize that a natural warming trend began a century ago, picked up speed in the 1970s and should continue for another five centuries. So the Greenhouse Effect is like stepping on the gas in a fast-moving car - global heating will happen faster, and will reach even higher temperatures than nature could have achieved on its own.

As mentioned previously, I like warm. So the later-than-usual drop in autumn temperatures is fine with me. But I hope those scientists are wrong and we don’t end up with 12 months of sizzling summer.

I like my seasons, no matter how subtle their changing.

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