Atop Maunakea, it’s safety first

While we have not had much snow so far this winter, it’s never too late to see flurries at the summit. Snow in Hawaii is a treat, but often the public cannot experience the snow immediately. There is a very important reason for the delay ­— safety.

The Office of Maunakea Management and Maunakea Observatory Support Services work in tandem to keep the road clear and safe for visitors. Often, snow on the mountain is the result of a large storm, one that lasts for days at a time. During the storm, lots of snow and ice can accumulate.

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The summit access road is closed whenever snow or ice are present on the pavement. Few drivers, and even fewer vehicles in Hawaii are equipped to drive in these conditions. Black ice, which is nearly transparent and very difficult so see, is frequently found in the high elevations of Maunakea. This dangerous condition occurs when the road temperature is below freezing and the humidity is high. The moisture in the air condenses and freezes on the road, making it look deceivingly wet when it’s actually covered with a dangerous layer of ice.

The Maunakea Rangers take public safety very seriously and will not open the road until they have completed a full inspection. This takes time as the rangers slowly drive the road themselves looking for ice, snow or areas where heavy precipitation may have caused the road to wash out. If the road is safe for the public, it is opened.

Due to the dangerous white-out conditions that occur during snow storms, clearing snow doesn’t normally begin until after a storm ends and the forecast is clear. It is a safe assumption that the road will be closed the morning after a snowfall. If there is snow that won’t soon melt, the Maunakea Observatory Support Services snow removal crew springs into action. This group has the only road snow removal equipment in the state. However, snow removal can be a slow process. High winds usually accompany storms, causing large snow drifts to form. Snow plows make little headway with road ice so in many cases the road remains closed until the ice has melted.

Clearing the steep summit access road of snow is dangerous. Road ice can be hidden under the snow and snow drifts make the road edge invisible. Snow plow and snow blower operators must work slowly, concentrating on controlling their equipment. This makes it dangerous for other drivers or hikers to be around them. The safety of the snow removal crew is a primary concern and keeping the equipment in good condition is also very important as there are no spare parts available in Hawaii! Also, two full road lanes must be open in all areas to safely accommodate the many visitors who arrive after a snow storm.

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At long last the storm stops, the road is open and people flock to see snow in Hawaii. But the work of the rangers does not stop! They watch out for the safety of visitors on the summit and offer aid when needed. Visitors can help the rangers by keeping in mind a few good practices — drive slowly, watch out for pedestrians, and be patient ­— everyone wants to see and play in the snow. Keep in mind that snow is heavier than it seems. Trucks full of snow will not stop as quickly as they normally do. Using equipment not designed for snow play, such as boogie boards, trash can lids, or car hoods are discouraged because they give the user little control of direction and braking. That’s dangerous as the snow may not be the same depth in all areas and the bottoms of the steep slopes generally end in rocks. Striking rocks has caused serious injuries and can be fatal. Anyone engaged in snow play should be very cautious on the steep slopes.

Want to know if the road is open? Visit the road conditions section of the Maunakea Weather Center website: http://mkwc.ifa.hawaii.edu/ or call 808-935-6268 for a recorded message. If you visit the summit post snow, be sure to thank the rangers and road crew for keeping us all safe!

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