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Hawaii’s Culturally Significant Lake Waiau Shrinking Fast

November 9, 2013

The following is this week’s edition of “Volcano Watch” from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

USGS Photo, looking north, at what remained of Lake Waiau on September 26, 2013. The water area was just 15 meters (yards) wide at this time. Prior to 2010, the lake occupied the entirety of the now-dry lake bed, which is about 100 meters (yards) wide. The astronomical telescopes at the summit off Mauna Kea are visible on the skyline. (USGS)

About a year ago, a Volcano Watch article described recent changes at Lake Waiau, the tiny lake just below Mauna Kea’s summit that is Hawaiʻi’s only alpine lake. Despite Lake Waiau’s small size (normally 0.7 hectares, or 1.7 acres), it plays an important part in local ecology and in Hawaiian culture. The article noted that the lake has been shrinking at an alarming rate. Over the past year, this decrease in lake size has continued, and the lake is now almost entirely gone.

Office of Mauna Kea Management Rangers, working cooperatively with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) which manages the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve, have been monitoring the lake closely and have tracked this remarkable reduction in the lake size with repeat photography.

HVO has recently been watching these changes, as well, as part of our broad mission to monitor Hawaiʻi’s active (and recently active) volcanoes. HVO scientists have compiled numerous high-resolution satellite images to document the surface area of the lake since about 2000.

Lake Waiau in April, 2012. (Photo used by permission).

Lake Waiau in April, 2012. (Photo used by permission).

The results are compelling. Prior to 2010, the lake surface area fluctuated between about 5,000 and 7,000 square meters (1.2–1.7 acres), with the variability presumably due to recharge from winter storms balanced by loss due to evaporation. Sometime in early 2010, however, the lake surface area began to shrink and, by late September 2013, had declined to just 115 square meters (0.03 acres)—that is, about 2 percent of its normal surface area.

Geography professor Donna Delparte, formerly of University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and now at Idaho State University, has also been monitoring the recent changes. Her group has made detailed measurements of lake geometry using advanced techniques, such as laser scanning and photogrammetry. Prior to 2010, the maximum depth of the lake was about 3 m (yards), but today the lake is less than 30 cm (1 foot) deep. This means that the current volume of the lake is less than 1 percent of its normal (pre-2010) value.

Using air photos to extend the time series of lake surface area back to the 1950s, we see no other drops of such scale. Historical photographs taken through the last hundred years, and written reports going back to the early 1800s, give no indication of the lake ever being as small as it is today. This suggests that the current reduction in size is unprecedented in modern times, but we cannot say this with absolute certainty, because there were large time gaps between the recorded observations in the 1800s and early 1900s. Nevertheless, the reduction in lake size that we see today appears to be highly unusual.

USGS employee standing in front of Lake Waiau to show scale of the shallow lake. June 14, 2002. (USGS)

What could be driving such dramatic change? An obvious culprit would be the ongoing drought in Hawaiʻi that began in 2008. The Mauna Kea visitor center weather station shows very little precipitation for several consecutive months in early 2010, which may have been a trigger for the level drop that was sustained by low precipitation over the subsequent few years. The National Drought Mitigation Center shows that the drought across Hawaiʻi intensified in early 2010, consistent with this local weather data.

Current drought conditions for the State of Hawaii. (Courtesy National Drought Mitigation Center)

Could other factors be contributing to the potentially unprecedented nature of these changes? Lake Waiau is a “perched” water body, in which water is held in a depression by an impermeable substrate. This substrate consists of layers of silty clay, interbedded with ash layers, and it has been proposed that permafrost also underlies the lake. 
It has also been proposed that permafrost surrounds the lake and provides a catchment that directs water into the lake. Could changes in the presumed permafrost have altered the water balance in the lake over the past few years? So far, there is no hard evidence to support this possibility, but we cannot yet count it out. We simply don’t know at this point, and more research needs to be done. If you have historical photos of the lake that you are willing to share, please contact HVO (

Given its cultural significance and its uniqueness, the disappearance of Lake Waiau would be a great loss for Hawaiʻi. The future is far from certain for Lake Waiau, and DLNR, rangers, and scientists will continue to watch this situation closely.

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