Mysterious saucer-shaped clouds lingered over Big Island on Wednesday
March 10, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
On Wednesday, Hawai’i Island was treated to relatively rare, lower-atmospheric spectacles for skies over Hawai‘i — lenticular clouds. The thick, lens-shaped, bright white, fluffy masses hovered high in the otherwise clear blue sky for most of the day.
Sometimes mistaken for flying saucers or unidentified flying objects, the clouds reside in the troposphere, between 6,500 and 20,000 feet high up in Earth’s atmosphere. They are created when stable air is pushed up by some sort of barrier such as a building or mountain. In the case of Wednesday’s visitors, it was Maunakea and Mauna Loa. The moisture packs together into vertical stacks, according to information from the National Weather Service.
Unlike other clouds, lenticulars don’t drift much. The clouds are constantly developing and dissipating, which is why they appear to be stationary even while the upper-level winds are swiftly — and sometimes very swiftly — moving through them. They also can, but don’t always, produce precipitation.
Weather conditions were ripe for the clouds to form over the island on Wednesday, with sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph forecast, localized gusts of more than 50 mph, and even stronger winds of 70 to 90 mph at the summits of the island’s two largest volcanic mountains.
They invaded overnight Tuesday and lit up social media with many photos and posts, beginning at 1:30 a.m. Hundreds reacted on Facebook, many saying: “Wow.”
One Hawai‘i Tracker group post with many photo by Kim Ewald Lee of Pāhoa had more than 2,000 reactions, 360 comments and was shared nearly 300 times by mid-morning Thursday.
The mighty morphers miles above the Big Island took on many shapes throughout the day, thinning out into a long train at one point before an hour later transforming into something that resembled a small swirling supercell thunderstorm — like what you see during the spring in the Midwest. One person even joked that one of the clouds took the shape of a lewd vegetable emoji.
As the sun set behind a still-snowcapped Maunakea, with brilliant oranges, pinks and blues backlighting it, the large lenticular cloud that had hovered over Hilo throughout the day fanned out to make it look like the East Hawai‘i community had grown wings.
“Hilo taking flight,” Erin Gustin captioned the photo she shared in Hawai‘i Tracker.
The juggernauts dominated Big Island skies and played muse to people’s imaginations — and funny bones — all day.
“This is either Dr. Evil’s lair or maybe Bill Gates’ Hilo headquarters,” joked Axel Kratel of Hilo in a post in the Hilo Happenings group shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday, referring to the villain from the “Austin Powers” movies and the co-founder of Microsoft. “Feel free to create your own favorite conspiracy theory.”
Some people went “UFO hunting” just to snap pics of the oddballs in the sky.
“The winds are pumping this morning!” the Volcano Art Center said in a post sharing a photo of one of the clouds hanging out over its gallery in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. “And this space ship cloud is ready to abduct the Volcano Art Center staff!”
“Giving me ‘Nope’ vibes,” said Zak Silva-Sampaio of Hilo, a taxi driver who snapped several photos of the clouds while working Wednesday. He was referencing the 2022 film directed by Jordan Peele in which people in a lonely California gulch community become witnesses to a mysterious cloud-shaped UFO they come to find out is more than meets the eye.
Locals and tourists alike were out and about in a frenzy taking photos of the saucer-shaped clouds. Even the Subaru Telescope, which normally has its sights set on the cosmos above the summit of Maunakea, tweeted a video of a lenticular cloud over its base facility in Hilo.
Christine Rolon-Inserra of Ka‘ū, who said she’s lived on the Big Island long enough to see some “weird stuff,” called the clouds strange: “I’ve never seen that in my life, even in pictures.”
The lenticular loiterers lingered into the night, still high above the island after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, basking in the bright light of the full moon, stargazing. Or maybe Earth-gazing?
By 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, the clouds seemed to be dissipating, thinning to mostly translucent versions of their earlier bright white opaqueness and leaving the glowing moon to reign supreme in the night sky. Just before 11 p.m., they were barely visible anymore, even in a dimly lit spot — blown away after blowing the minds of many Big Islanders.
There was a lenticular cloud spotted over Maunakea during the Kona Low storms that moved over the island in mid-February, but before that it had been awhile since the lens-shaped clouds made an appearance over the Big Island.
“They are fairly common over the western half of the mainland due to the Rockies, but relatively rare in Hawai‘i,” according to the National Weather Service forecast office in Honolulu.
Victoria Hokulani Cheneviereof Hilo said in a Facebook post that the last time she saw this type of clouds was more than 15 years ago over Maunakea.
The National Weather Service in Honolulu said a couple of long-lasting lenticular clouds were also seen over the Big Island on Nov. 25, 2003, as strong winds of 40 to 60 mph from the southwest developed above 10,000 feet in the atmosphere. Those winds were forced to flow over and around the summits of Maunakea and Mauna Loa, resulting in “waves” in the atmosphere. With enough moisture at mid and upper levels, lenticular clouds formed where the “wave” peaked.
So experiencing the lingering lenticulars Wednesday was a special event — even if they weren’t visitors from outer space.
“Seeing a cloud like this has filled one of the buckets on my list,” said Judith Lee of Papa’aloa in a post just before 7 a.m. Thursday morning in Hawai‘i Tracker. “So unusual and beautiful.”