Divine Flash

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Story by Shannon Wianecki

Hawaiian Lightning
The clouds over Maui are rarely cold enough to spark a lightning storm. Lono, the Hawaiian god of thunder, lightning bolts, and lush rains lights up the sky just a few times each year. Photo courtesy of @Archershoots

Lono, the Hawaiian god of agriculture and fertility, is associated with all sorts of feisty weather. He rules over the wet winter months, when heavy rains drench Hawai‘i’s mountains and saturate the kalo lo‘i (taro patches). According to old chants, Lono’s voice can be heard in the crash of boulders tumbling down ravines during flash floods. He manifests in rainbows hovering on the horizon, in thumping surf, whirlwinds, and waterspouts. His particular calling cards are thunderclaps and lightning bolts—both relatively rare phenomena in Hawai‘i.

Fewer than thirty thunderstorms rattle Hawaiian skies each year. These storms typically transpire during Kā‘elo and Kaulua, traditional lunar months that roughly correspond to January and February. This is the best time to scan the heavens for flashes of Lono i ka uila—Lono of the lightning.

Lightning occurs when a cloud’s ice particles collide and build up electrical charges. In order for a cloud to accumulate ice particles, it needs to be at least 20,000 feet high. Hawaiian clouds usually fall far short of that. “Most of the time our clouds only grow to eight to ten thousand feet,” says Ian Morrison, a meteorologist who studies Hawai‘i’s weather for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Every so often a cold front rolls through, pushing clouds upwards and creating the stage for a natural pyrotechnic show.

The odds of getting zapped by Hawaiian lightning are especially slim—but it has happened. An article published in 1857 in the Hawaiian-language newspaper Hae Hawaii describes how, during an intense thunderstorm in Punalu‘u, a bolt of lightning shot through a woman’s house and burned her while she slept. More recently, in June 2019, the National Weather Service recorded hundreds of cloud-to-ground strikes on the island of O‘ahu. Three people were hit by lightning on a single day! Luckily, Lono usually keeps his distance. Most bolts strike far out to sea.

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