El Nino leads to return of severe drought conditions in Hawaii
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El Nino leads to return of severe drought conditions in Hawaii

  • COURTESY BARBARA UECHI Homes were evacuated in the Komohana Kai subdivision of Kailua-Kona after a brush fire broke out Wednesday afternoon.

After an unusually wet summer and fall, a record lack of rain in the winter prompted the National Weather Service to declare a “severe drought” on Hawaii and Maui today, as moderate drought conditions spread on Oahu and other islands.

One of the impacts of the drought has been an increase in brush fires on Maui and Hawaii island, like Wednesday’s fire in Kailua-Kona that led to the evacuations of homes and the Kahikinui fire on the south slope of Haleakala that burned 5,600 acres over two weeks.

“There’s a lot of fuel available,” said Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service Honolulu office. “It didn’t help that they were pretty wet during the summer and fall, then it all dried out.”

In a report released today, Kodama said that drought conditions will likely spread and intensify across the state through the summer.

“A long period of dry weather conditions caused by the ongoing strong El Nino event has produced large areas of drought,” Kodama said.

El Nino is beginning to weaken, but its effects will likely continue into May and June, past the end of the traditional wet season in Hawaii, he said.

That’s bad news for firefighters as brush fire season approaches, and farmers and ranchers, who are seeing non-irrigated crops and pasture lands dry up. The drought will also affect people who depend on rain catchment for water in their homes.

Coffee farmers in the Kona area are not seeing as much flowering, which will likely lead to lower production.

January was a record low month for rainfall, with most areas seeing less than 50 percent of normal rain and some areas below 10 percent of normal for the month.

“February wasn’t as bad, but it was still dry,” Kodama said.

March is traditionally the wettest month of the year, but so far winter storms have been passing north of the state and bringing mostly changes in wind direction, rather than significant rainfall.

The long-term forecast for Hawaii calls for more below-average rain through the spring and above-average temperatures during the summer.

Kodama said many water districts heeded warnings that this would be a drier than normal winter and began water conservation measures during the summer.

For leeward areas, the next hope for wetter conditions may be in October, when the next wet season begins.Windward areas should get some rain as tradewinds return to normal and blow in rain clouds, Kodama said.

However, Kodama noted that during the last severe El Nino in 1998, the dry winter was just the beginning of four years of drought.

“It’s impossible to predict,” Kodama said. “But there’s a possibility that the next wet season may be dry too.”

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