Story by Shannon Wianecki
Trade winds are the prevailing gusts that blow across the tropics. In the Northern Hemisphere they blow from the northeast, in the Southern from the southeast. During the Age of Sail (roughly 1570 to 1860), these predictable breezes carried European ships across the Atlantic to the New World, and to this day they pitch hurricanes westward across tropical seas. But here in Hawai‘i, they’re mostly known for delivering perfect weather.
Trade winds chase away humidity and vog (volcanic smog). When they hit Hawai‘i’s tall mountains, they produce rain; without them, the islands experience stagnant air conditions and sometimes drought. Luckily, northeast winds keep us cool nearly all summer and up to 80 percent of winter.
These trusty gusts haven’t always blown. Climate scientists say that between 1140 and 1260 AD, westerly winds prevailed. Polynesian voyagers likely took advantage of them to further explore the Pacific—sailing to Aotearoa, Rapa Nui, and Hawai‘i.
Hawai‘i’s first inhabitants had an intimate connection to natural phenomena, reflected in their language. ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i has thousands of words describing rain, fog, clouds, and winds. Some of these names are specific to certain areas; others refer to subtle differences in quality. The general term for wind is makani, the northeast trades are moa‘e or a‘e, and the southerly, leeward winds are kona.
A particularly poetic wind name comes from Waihe‘e Valley in Central Maui: kili‘o‘opu refers to the scent of ‘o‘opu (freshwater gobies) steaming on the fire. In days past, these stream-dwelling fish were reserved for royalty, but the aromatic wind broadcast an open secret: commoners living alongside the stream regularly enjoyed the forbidden delicacy. Were they punished for this indiscretion? The wind doesn’t tell. Whether caterwauling across the Pacific or whispering from a single valley, Hawaiian winds are full of surprises.