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Hawaii is facing a rare threat: a major hurricane

Here’s what we know about the storm that could graze the islands this week.

Hurricane Lane, as seen from space.
NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The state of Hawaii is facing a rare threat: A major hurricane is moving toward it, with hurricane watches and warnings in effect for most of the islands. Some areas on the Big Island have already seen a foot of rain from the outer bands of the storm. And more is to come.

Hawaii is no stranger to natural hazards like volcanic eruptions (remember Kilauea?). But due to high-pressure weather patterns over the central Pacific, and a lot of deep, cool water around the islands, tropical storms usually steer clear.

It’s unclear if Hurricane Lane — which is currently howling with 130 mph winds — will just graze the islands as it approaches on Thursday or if it will make landfall. It’s expected to weaken over the next two days, but will remain a dangerous situation, the National Weather Service warns. Meanwhile, the path Lane is taking is slowing down, meaning the storm may linger over the islands, drenching them with rain.

In any case: It’s a potentially scary situation for the islands’ 1.4 million inhabitants, given the size of the storm and the impact it could have. “The center of Lane will track dangerously close to the islands Thursday through Saturday,” the National Weather Service’s Honolulu office reports. “Regardless of the exact track of the storm center, life threatening impacts are likely over some areas as this strong hurricane makes its closest approach.”

Tropical storm- and hurricane-force winds may reach the Big Island (the largest and easternmost island) by Thursday morning, local time, followed by feet of rain, flooding, storm surge, and, possibly, landslides. “Now is the time to complete all preparations to protect life and property,” the Weather Service warns.

Here is the current forecast track, from the Central Pacific Hurricane Center. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are imminent and preparations should be rushed to completion. A watch means hurricane conditions are possible within the next 48 hours.

Here’s what the weather service wants Hawaii residents to know:

1. Lane will pass dangerously close to the main Hawaiian Islands as a hurricane Thursday and Friday, and is expected to bring damaging winds. These winds can be accelerated over and downslope from elevated terrain, and will be higher in high rise buildings.

2. The slow movement of Lane also greatly increases the threat for prolonged heavy rainfall and extreme rainfall totals. This is expected to lead to life-threatening flash flooding and landslides over all Hawaiian Islands.

3. Large and damaging surf can be expected along exposed shorelines, especially along south and west facing coasts, with localized storm surge exacerbating the impacts of a prolonged period of damaging surf.

4. Do not focus on the exact forecast track or intensity of Lane, and be prepared for adjustments to the forecast. Although the official forecast does not explicitly indicate Lane’s center making landfall over any of the islands, this could still occur. Even if the center of Lane remains offshore, severe impacts could still be realized as they extend well away from the center.

And here, see when forecasters predict tropical storm-force winds are expected to arrive for the area (times are in local Hawaii-Aleutian Time, or HST):

Hawaii Gov. David Ige has issued an emergency proclamation to prepare and access emergency disaster funding.

As with any hurricane, you shouldn’t focus solely on wind speed — the storm surge and rain matter too. But Lane is currently sustaining 130 mph winds, which can destroy homes, uproot trees, and knock out power for months.

And as we saw last year with Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, even a downgraded hurricane or tropical storm can cause massive destruction and chaos. The deadliest aspect of a hurricane tends to be the coastal flooding that comes from storm surge. With Lane, forecasters are predicting 2 to 4 feet of storm surge and “large and destructive waves.”

A chart describing storms labeled Category 1 (winds up to 95 miles per hour, isolated injuries) through Category 5 (winds above 155 mph, extreme flooding). Zachary Crockett/Vox

Only two tropical storms and two hurricanes have made landfall in Hawaii since 1959

We’re more familiar with Atlantic hurricanes, which hit the US more often. One reason is that when hurricanes form in the Atlantic, they can hit anywhere along the enormous American coastline. Pacific hurricanes often begin as storm systems off the west coast of Mexico. From there, Hawaii is just a tiny target, a speck in the sea.

As CNN reports, a named storm passes within 60 miles of Hawaii every four years or so. But it’s also the case that the Pacific waters around the islands are about a degree Fahrenheit warmer than usual, which is helping to fuel Lane’s powerful wind speeds.

Scientists will have to do careful work to model whether this storm was made bigger and more powerful by climate change. We already know many storms are made wetter by climate change, and the science predicts that bigger and more powerful storms will become more frequent in the future.

And indeed, this is an enormous storm.

How to follow Lane:

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Lane. Check it out.
  • Follow the Honolulu branch of the National Weather Service on Twitter.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.
  • Here’s a Twitter list of weather experts via meteorologist Eric Holthaus. These experts will give you up-to-the-second forecasts and warnings.