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Trade winds drop, and Hawaii gets muggy

Friday - 6/7/2013, 5:48pm  ET

FILE - In this file photo from Sunday, March 8, 2009, steam and gas emits from the year-old fumarole in the Halemaumau Crater of Kilauea's summit caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Part of what makes living in Hawaii so pleasant is the gentle breezes. Nowadays, these breezes, called trade winds, are declining, a drop that’s slowly changing life across the islands. (AP Photo/Chris Stewart)

AUDREY McAVOY
Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- Part of what makes living in Hawaii so pleasant is the gentle breeze. Arriving from the northeast, it's light enough that it is barely noticeable but strong enough to chase away the humidity.

It's a natural draw to the outdoors. It is not uncommon to show up at a house to find its residents relaxing out in the covered porch or in the car port, not their living room, and enjoying the cooling winds -- and a cool drink.

Nowadays, experts say, these breezes, called trade winds, are declining, a drop that's slowly changing life across the islands.

The effects can be seen from the relatively minor, such as residents unaccustomed to the humidity complaining about the weather and having to use their fans and air conditioning more often, to the more consequential, including winds being too weak to blow away volcanic smog.

The winds also help bring the rains, and their decline means less water. It's one reason officials are moving to restore the health of the mountainous forests that hold the state's water supply and encourage water conservation. Scholars are studying ways for farmers to plant crops differently.

It's not clear what's behind the shift in the winds.

"People always try to ask me: 'Is this caused by global warming?' But I have no idea," said University of Hawaii at Manoa meteorologist Pao-shin Chu, who began to wonder a few years ago about the winds becoming less steady and more intermittent.

Chu suggested a graduate student look into it. The resulting study, published last fall in the Journal of Geophysical Research, showed a decades-long decline, including a 28 percent drop in northeast trade wind days at Honolulu's airport since the early 1970s.

The scientists used wind data from four airports and four ocean buoys as well as statistical data analysis for their study. Now, they are working to project future trade winds using the most recent data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body of the United Nations.

Luke Evslin is already noticing the dip. The 28-year-old has paddled outrigger canoes -- boats long used around the Pacific for fishing, travel and racing -- for most of his life. In Hawaii, this means he rides waves generated by trade winds. These days, though, there are fewer waves to surf because the winds are arriving less often.

"You show up and the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. So instead of a 3-hour-45-minute race, it turns into a 5
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