Snow storm blankets Maunakea

  • A photo from a webcam facing south at the Very Long Baseline Array on Maunakea, Friday afternoon.

HILO — The first major winter storm of the season dumped snow on Maunakea Friday, prompting closure of the access road.

The intermittent heavy downpours that have soaked the leeward side of the island this week produced multiple snowstorms on the mountain’s summit, generating snowdrifts up to 4 feet high, said Stewart Hunter, general manager of Maunakea Support Services.

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“It comes in heavy for a minute, and then it clears up,” Hunter said, adding that crews have to continually clear out the snowdrifts before they get too high.

Beginning Friday morning, the access road was closed above the Maunakea Visitor Information Station at the 9,200-foot level because of the poor conditions, including not only the snowfall but ice and dense fog.

On Friday afternoon, Hunter said the fog was so thick he couldn’t see beyond 50 feet.

Based on a forecast by the Maunakea Weather Center, those winter storm conditions are expected to continue throughout the weekend and into next week, potentially lasting until Wednesday. Unless those conditions change, Hunter said, the access road will likely remain closed.

“Inoperable conditions of extensive fog, ice and flurries will continue to plague the summit throughout the forecast period,” reads the forecast. “There is a possibility for periods of heavy snow and isolated convection at virtually anytime.”

As long as the weather continues, the domes of the Maunakea observatories will not be able to be opened, Hunter said, because too much moisture in the air can damage the telescopes’ mirrors.

This is the first major snowfall of the year on the Maunakea summit, and the first snowstorm of the season, Hunter said.

On lower slopes of the island, heavy rains are predicted throughout the weekend.

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A high surf warning is in effect in Hilo through today, with a flash flood watch continuing until Sunday. Residents are advised to remain cautious in low-lying areas and not attempt to cross fast flowing water on foot or by vehicle.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.