In a year of supremely weird weather, we may be in for yet another very odd event: a landfalling Hawaiian hurricane.
Hurricane Lane is currently the strongest storm on the planet with winds of 150 mph, making it a very potent Category 4 storm according to the latest National Hurricane Center advisory. Hurricane Hunter aircraft flew into the storm on Tuesday morning and found evidence of 164 mph winds, which would make Lane a Category 5 storm. Its strength alone would make Lane a harrowing site, but it’s the forecast that’s the real issue. The storm is slowly churning northwest and Hawaiian islands are within the cone of uncertainty, meaning the storm could swipe or even score a direct hit on the islands.
In anticipation of that possibility, the National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane watch for Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe, and Hawaii. The watch could very well expand to include Oahu, the most populous island, which currently sits just within the cone.
The storm is forecast to reach the vicinity of Hawaii sometime between Thursday and Friday. If Hurricane Lane makes landfall, it would become the third hurricane to strike Hawaii since record keeping began. The only two to hit the islands are Dot in 1959 and Iniki in 1992, which coincidentally both hit Kauai (for my dino movieheads, the latter interrupted filming for Jurassic Park).
Even if Lane doesn’t make landfall, its track could still strafe a number of the islands, dumping torrential rain and stirring up violent surf.
“Lane is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 10 to 15 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches over the Hawaiian Islands,” the National Hurricane Center wrote in an update on Tuesday morning local time. “Large swells generated by Lane will impact the Hawaiian Islands this week. These swells will produce large and potentially damaging surf along exposed south and west facing shorelines.”
There are a couple factors that make landfalling hurricane so rare in Hawaii. Chief among them are the relatively cool waters that surround the Aloha State, which deprive hurricanes of warm, moist fuel that keeps them churning. The islands’ rugged terrain can also tear storms up.
In an unfortunate twist, waters are warmer than normal right now, which could keep Lane in healthy shape as it approaches the islands. Some of that warm water is tied to a burbling El Niño, which causes warmer tend to envelop the Hawaiian islands and the eastern tropical Pacific. But even non-El Niño years can spawn hurricanes in the central Pacific. In 2016, an unheard of pair of hurricanes rumbled right by Hawaii.
Climate change is also driving ocean temperatures up around the globe. Some research has shown that a recent spate of tropical storms near Hawaii were made more likely by this added heat, and that more storms could be in Hawaii’s future as oceans warm up even further. When it comes to climate change, a few more hurricanes may be the least of Hawaii’s worries, though.