Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: An Idyllic Paradise on the North Shore of Kaua'i. Sort of.

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
If you have been there and think that Hanalei Bay is the most beautiful place on the planet, don't worry, I'm not going to diss it. It is indeed one of the most beautiful places I can imagine. It's been the setting for numerous films that needed an idyllic paradise for a backdrop, most notably South Pacific, the Wackiest Ship in the Army (with Jack Lemmon), Uncommon Valor (Gene Hackman, Patrick Swayze), and The Descendants (George Clooney). And who can forget She Gods of Shark Reef?
I've stood on the shoreline, looking towards Nāmolokama Mountain, and there were dozens of waterfalls in view, falling hundreds of feet. The slopes were choked with tropical vegetation, providing a contrast to the rich tan colored sand and the blue water. It's close to the ideal of paradise.
The secret is rainfall, of course. The average precipitation along the shoreline ranges from 80-120 inches a year, and the steep mountain cliffs above wring far more water out of the clouds. The mountaintop just to the south, Mt. Waialeale, has at least a claim to being the wettest place on planet Earth, with a yearly average of more than 400 inches per year!
There's a flip side to being paradise, though. One notices while driving through the small villages along the shoreline that many houses are built on stilts, sitting high off the ground. It's a hint that paradise comes with certain dangers.  The shoreline is exposed to tsunamis, and in some events, most notably in 1946, the surging waves reached a depth of 19 feet, causing severe damage. Even high winter surf (especially in the age of global warming and sea level rise) can endanger some structures as well as the coastal highway.
River flooding is another problem. The rains can come in torrents, and Hanalei River overflows its banks regularly. The pier at Hanalei Bay (above) is a favorite destination of mine (as well as many others!), and one might wonder why there's a roof over the end of the structure. There could be many reasons, but I suspect that since lots of people like to spend time there fishing and picnicking, it's nice to have a place to stay out of the rain, because the weather can change in an instant.

I was surprised by a fierce downpour a couple of years back when I was on the pier, and I took some snapshots of the storm. As I looked at the photos later on, I noticed something strange.
Those spots in the picture were not bits of spray on my lens. They were huge rain drops, caught in suspension by the fast shutter speed. I sort of knew it already, but the picture shows that raindrops are roughly spherical, and not the tear-drop shaped blob that illustrations usually make them out to be.
I am always telling my students that there is no place in the world where one is safe from geological hazards. It's not meant to scare anyone, but instead is meant to encourage people to seek an understanding of the potential threats that they might face if they want to put down roots somewhere. Paradise means different things to different people, but Hanalei Bay comes close in my opinion. Just pay attention to those tsunami sirens when they go off...