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Snow Piles Up On Hawaii's Mauna Kea

The north webcam on Mauna Kea on Feb. 23, 2012.
The north webcam on Mauna Kea on Feb. 23, 2012. (Image credit: USGS)

Snow continued to fall today in a place that most people do not associate with the white stuff: Hawaii.

Snow covered the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, one of the five volcanoes that form Hawaii, as seen by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) webcams atop the mountain. The snow was so thick that the road to the summit area of Mauna Kea was closed, according to news reports. Snow on the summit should remain through the weekend, but the roads are expected to reopen.

Snow here is not actually all that unusual. Mauna Kea is nearly 14,000 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level, making it the highest peak in Hawaii (if measured from the seafloor, it's the tallest mountain in the world). This mountain is known for snow — its name means "white mountain" in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian mythology, Poli'ahu, a goddess of snow, lives here.

"It's winter time," Derek Wroe, a forecaster with the National Weather Service told the Honolulu Star Advisor. "Temperatures are colder than normal, but not unusual for this time of year."

The sun deck on Mauna Kea, as seen on Feb. 23, 2012. (Image credit: USGS)

The summits' temperatures often dip well below freezing during the winter, and sometimes even into the summer. In June 2011, Mauna Kea had its first June snowfall in decades.

Snowstorms can form atop the mountain when cold air in the upper atmosphere comes down from the mid-latitudes and mixes with hot air rising from the land that is heated throughout the day. When warm surface air hits the cold air in the upper atmosphere, a thunderstorm can form, dumping snow on the summit.

You can follow OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel on Twitter: @btisrael. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.