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Most people would agree that there is one kind of rain: the wet kind. But just as the indigenous cultures of Alaska and Canada have dozens of different words for different kinds of snow, so does the Hawaiian language have a great many words and phrases that are specific to rainfall characteristics in different parts of each island. Hawaiian culture is intrinsically attuned to the natural environment, and anyone who has spent enough time in Hawaii is likely aware of the subtle nuances that makes rain more than just wet.
Ua (ooh-uh) is the standard generic term for rain. However, in 2005, the University of Hawaii published an index of rain names containing hundreds entries. But you don’t need to know, for example, that Ha’ao refers to the light, breathy, misting rain that falls where I live at the mouth of Nu’uanu Valley. Or that ua lanipili (Ooh-uh la-nee-pee-lee) refers to a torrential downpour. A simple understanding of our rainy weather, on Oahu for example, falls into basic categories.
Our prevailing trade winds bring trade showers. The trade showers are what prompt people to say “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The rain can be heavy at times, but borne on the trades, they pass fairly quickly, leaving sunny skies in their wake. These are the rains that spawn brilliant rainbows in the valleys along the Koolau and Waianae mountain ranges.
A good rule of thumb is that if the clouds are moving from northeast to southwest, showers falling from them are passing. Countless rounds of golf, for instance, have been abandoned due to rain, only to have players marvel at sunny skies by the time they get back to the car. If it starts to come down, you may want to stick it out for a while. As we say, “Passing, brah!”
That is unless the rain is the result of a less typical weather system approaching or over the state. The weather systems that often bring the most persistent rain to the islands come from the southeast and southwest. We call it “Kona weather” as Kailua-Kona is at the southeastern end of the state. A good rule of thumb here is that if you are on the beach on the south side of any island, and dark clouds are marching toward you from the sea, they’re likely going to be around for a while. It’s probably a good day for indoor activities.
But this is paradise, and the rains never seem to hang around for too long (although many here will recall 10-or-so years ago, when it rained for 42 days in a row). We haven’t had a major tropical storm or hurricane since Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
Chances are, your Hawaii vacation will enjoy abundant sunshine. But should it rain, pay attention to its subtleties, the sound, the smell, the direction. It’s every bit as much a part of the Hawaii experience as a day on the beach.