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Puʿukohola Heiau

Local knowledge of climate and winds contributes to building of a Visitor Center at  Puʿukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Na makani paio lua o Kawaihae.

The two conflicting winds of Kawaihae: the mumuku wind from the uplands, and the naulu wind, which brings the rains to Kawaihae (Pukui 1983)

Puʿukohola, or Hill of the Humpbacked Whale, is a historic site on the Kona-Kohala coast overlooking Kawaihae Bay on the Big Island of Hawaiʿi. The park, which attracts over 270,000 visitors per year (Ben Saldua, pers. comm., 1/8/14), is made up of Puʿukohola Heiau (temple); smaller and older Mailekini Heiau, which was later converted into a fort; the ruins of submerged Hale-o-Kapuni Heiau, which was believed to be dedicated to the worship of sharks; the John Young Homestead; and the central courtyard or Pelekane. Because of its historical and cultural importance, Puʿukohola Heiau and the surrounding area was designated a National Historic Site in 1972, under the administration of the National Park Service (NPS). The heiau is considered a highly significant cultural site because it is the only structure in the archipelago that is directly linked to the unification of the Hawaiian Islands and the founding of the Hawaiian Kingdom under Kamehameha the Great in the early nineteenth century (Greene 1993; NPS 2004).

  • Project goals: to provide a modern, structurally-sound, long-term visitor’s facility at Puʿukohola Heiau National Historic Site that would improve the cultural and historic landscape for local community members and practitioners while taking into account the local climate and mumuku winds
  • One of the key aspects of the project was an in-depth value analysis process that included broad stakeholder engagement with a number of groups and agencies representing the state and local community and Native Hawaiian interests
  • Variables which were considered included visitor satisfaction, cultural resources, local archaeology, cost, and cultural and physical landscape including the local mumuku winds
  • Climate issues were one of the key drivers throughout the process and the local winds were taken into consideration for practically every decision – this example of community engagement and local climate knowledge illustrates how climate information is used in everyday decision-making
Figure 1: Pu’ukohala Visitor Center (foreground) and heiau, Kawaihae Bay, Hawai’i. Photo by Laura Brewington.
Figure 1: Pu’ukohala Visitor Center (foreground) and heiau, Kawaihae Bay, Hawai’i. Photo by Laura Brewington.

In 2002, the NPS began planning a complete renovation of the Visitor Center and administrative offices located at Puʿukohola Heiau National Historic Site. In addition to providing a modern, structurally-sound, long-term facility from which visitors could access the Puʿukohola site, the main goal of the project was to improve the cultural and historic landscape for local community members and Native Hawaiian practitioners, who continue to use the heiau and surrounding area for regular events and ceremonies. The site planning and design included extensive stakeholder and partner engagement during all stages of the process. Developers also had to take local climate information into account, particularly regarding the mumuku winds, or enhanced trade winds, which are a constant force in the area (Schroeder 1981). Through extensive stakeholder and partner engagement, the building was specifically designed in order to best combat these strong and consistent winds. The new Visitor Center was opened to the public in 2007. The project was considered to be a success by the Park Service, visitors, and local community members, largely because of the utilization of local cultural and climatological knowledge in the planning and design, as well as the extensive community engagement process.

Regular trade winds are a key feature of the climate in the Hawaiian Islands. The trade winds, which typically flow from the northeast to the southwest, are a result of the larger regional Walker Circulation, in which easterly winds near the ocean surface in the eastern Pacific push air and water toward the west into Indonesia, where moisture is removed from the air through rainfall before the air rises to a higher altitude and circles back to the east, where the cycle begins again (Newman 2013). In Hawaiʿi, the trade winds hit the northeastern or windward sides of the islands and cause rainfall, resulting in the lush and green windward sides, and corresponding drier leeward sides of the islands. In addition to providing natural cooling for local homes, the trade winds are the primary source of rainfall in the state, and help maintain the islands’ vital water supply. However, a recent study showed that Hawaiʿi’s trade winds have decreased in frequency by approximately thirty percent over the past 37 years, from 291 days per year in 1973 to 210 days per year in 2009 (Garza et al. 2012). This trend may be caused by changes in the subtropical high-pressure ridge located to the northeast of the archipelago, a large-scale atmospheric phenomenon that governs Hawaiʿi’s prevailing trade winds (Garza et al. 2012), which could possibly be related to global climate change (Associated Press 2013). The decrease in the trade winds could have serious implications for the Hawaiian Islands, including negatively impacting local agriculture, harming native ecosystems and endangered species, and reducing the state’s limited freshwater supply. In a delicate environment such as the Kawaihae region on the Big Island, where Puʿukohola Heiau is located in one of the driest areas in the state (Cunningham 2009), a change in the trade winds could have far-reaching effects on the local environment.

Figure 2: Clouds provide evidence of the trade winds blowing across Waimea and Mauna Kea from the left, where they encounter naulu winds rising above the leeward Kohala coast, at right. Photo by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds.

Mason Architects, a Honolulu-based architectural firm that has worked with the NPS since 1998 on numerous construction projects throughout the Islands, was contracted to design and build the new Visitor Center. According to Glenn Mason, President of Mason Architects, one of the main physical drivers of the design of the new Visitor Center was the local mumuku winds. The Kawaihae region of the Big Island has been known for centuries for these strong, steady winds that flow from the uplands to the sea, and clash with the naulu, or sudden shower, winds that flow from the sea to the land and occasionally bring rain (Leopold 1949; NPS 2012; Businger et al. 2012). The land-to-sea mumuku winds are a local extension of the regional trade winds that hit Hawaiʿi Island from the northeast and gain intensity over the island’s central saddle before reaching the Kona-Kohala coast, while the sea-to-land naulu winds are caused by convection, in which heated air flows upslope off the water in the form of a sea breeze (Schroeder 1981; Businger et al. 2012). The naulu winds can occasionally bring rain to the dry region, but more often the strong mumuku winds push back the incoming sea breeze, and the rain will fall just offshore, if it falls at all (Leopold 1949; Schroeder 1981). Puʿukohola Historic Site Superintendent Daniel Kawaiaea, Jr., who was born and raised on Hawaiʿi Island and has spent more than 30 years working on the Puʿukohola site, contributed his vast knowledge of and experience with the local winds and climate to the design of the new Visitor Center. Under the advice of Kawaiaea and his colleagues, Mason Architects designed the building with its side turned to the mumuku winds, which allowed the large front doors to open completely to the heiau and also block the continuously strong winds with a wall. Mason explained, “We wanted it to feel like a pavilion – when you were in it the building disappears and you have a big opening to the heiau, which is the whole point, and the building wouldn’t get in the way of what you were there to look at” (Glenn Mason, pers. comm., 3/8/13).

Figure 3: The land-to-sea mumuku winds travel to the southwest, from Waimea to the Kona-Kohala coast below Kawaihae (Photo by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds).
Figure 3: The land-to-sea mumuku winds travel to the southwest, from Waimea to the Kona-Kohala coast below Kawaihae (Photo by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds).

In addition to implementing local climate knowledge in the building design, one of the key aspects of the new Visitor Center project was its commitment to broad stakeholder engagement, in which local partner organizations and community members, including representatives of native Hawaiian organizations, were included in key aspects of the planning process. Informal planning began in 2001, when an interpretive planning workshop was conducted at the park to provide direction for facility and interpretive media planning and design (NPS 2004: 3-9). In 2002 a more in-depth value analysis process was undertaken. A number of groups and agencies representing state and local community and Native Hawaiian interests were involved, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Na Aikane o Puʿu Kohola Heiau – Friends of Puʿu Kohola Heiau National Historic Site, the Waimea Hawaiian Civic Club, and the group Na Papa Kanaka o Puʿu Kohola, which has held an annual commemorative ceremony at the heiau every August since 1991.

The value analysis process is a formal, facilitated method of identifying all the possible alternatives, priorities, and concerns in a development project, and weighing the advantages of each, in order to make “a good decision which could be defensible and documented” (Daniel Kawaiaea, pers. comm., 2/27/13). Variables which were considered included visitor satisfaction, cultural resources, local archaeology, cost, cultural and physical landscape including the local mumuku winds, and many others. Because of the importance of the partner and stakeholder engagement process to the NPS, the design and planning of the new Visitor Center was inherently flexible. In fact, Glenn Mason described how a model of the new building had already been created at the very beginning of the project, but after the key priorities and needs were identified through the value analysis process the entire initial design was scrapped and redone, even though the project was already completely budgeted. In Mason’s original concept the Visitor Center was totally open to the air, but in reality the mumuku winds were far too strong and the building would have been unusable, so a late design change was made to open only the front of the building to the heiau, and block the winds with a flat wall. In addition, the impact of the new structure on continued community use of the heiau was considered in the value analysis process. The original planning for the building began from a point selected because it would provide the best views of Pu’ukohola Heiau for visitors. However, the involvement with the community partners later moved the actual site further to the south by about 100 yards, primarily to reduce the visual impact this new facility would have from the perspective of practitioners located within the heiau looking out. The roof alignment, distinctive curved roof design, and use of local stone building materials also aided to minimize this visual impact as well (Daniel Kawaiaea, pers. comm., 2/27/13).

Figure 4: The Visitor Center at Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historic Site looking over Kawaihae Bay. Photo by Mason Architects.
Figure 4: The Visitor Center at Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historic Site looking over Kawaihae Bay. Photo by Mason Architects.

Although many factors had to be taken into account during the design and planning of the new Visitor Center, climate issues were one of the key drivers throughout the process, and information about the local winds was taken into account for practically every decision. NPS representatives like Kawaiaea, local community participants, and others who were familiar with all aspects of the site and the influence of the mumuku winds contributed their decades of experiential data as part of the stakeholder engagement process. According to Mason, “If that had not occurred, we would have had to deal with taking a lot of measurements, or have been quite surprised at the end. But as it was, we were not surprised by things that happened” (Glenn Mason, pers. comm., 3/8/13). This example of community engagement and local climate knowledge illustrates how people make decisions including climate and weather variables all the time, even when not explicitly making decisions about climate. Although climate issues can be controversial and difficult to discuss, participatory engagement methods like the NPS value analysis process can help lead to outcomes that are acceptable, agreed-upon, and community-owned, despite the difficulty of the topic. Kawaiaea stated that stakeholder feedback regarding the community engagement process, as well as the end result, was overwhelmingly positive, since the final design was based on the decisions all participants agreed upon in the meetings.

The Puʿukohola Heiau Visitor Center development project is an excellent example of the importance of community engagement, as well as the successful utilization of local climatological and cultural knowledge in decision-making. The site presented a number of unique challenges – the local mumuku winds and the continued usage of the site by the local and Native Hawaiian communities – but through the NPS commitment to stakeholder engagement, as well as Mason Architects’ trust in incorporating local climate knowledge and experience into their design, those challenges were successfully overcome.

Puʿukohola Heiau, completed in 1971 for Kamehameha I. Photo by Laura Brewington.
Puʿukohola Heiau, completed in 1971 for Kamehameha I. Photo by Laura Brewington.

E naʿi wale no ʿoukou i koʿu pono, ʿaʿole e pau.

You can seek out all the benefits I have produced and find them without number. – Kamehameha I

Puʿukohola Heiau is a nationally significant site because of its association with both the life of King Kamehameha I, and the political unification of the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha I, or Kamehameha the Great, was the first leader in history to unite the entire Hawaiian archipelago.(Pukui 1983)

Kamehameha I, the son of a high chief and a princess, was born on Hawaiʿi Island around 1758 under a prophecy predicting the coming of a powerful leader. By 1790, Kamehameha had inherited land in northern Hawaiʿi Island and gained custody of his family’s war god, Kukaʿilimoku. He had also invaded and conquered Maui, Lanaʿi, and Molokaʿi, but he had trouble conquering all of his home island of Hawaiʿi because of the opposition of his cousin and chief rival, Keoua Kuahuʿula. For guidance, Kamehameha consulted the kahuna (elder or prophet) Kapoukahi. The kahuna prophesized that Kamehameha would unite and rule the islands if he built a large heiau dedicated to the war god Ku on top of Puʿukohola, or the Hill of the Humpbacked Whale.

The heiau was completed in 1791. Kamehameha invited his rival cousin, Keoua Kuahuʿula, to the dedication ceremony. At the ceremony, a fight occurred and Keoua and many of his companions were killed. Because Puʿukohola Heiau is a luakini, or human sacrifice heiau, Keoua’s body was offered as a sacrifice to the war god Ku. This event ended all opposition to Kamehameha on Hawaiʿi Island, and, as prophesized, led to the eventual consolidation of his rule across the entire archipelago and the creation of a unified Hawaiian kingdom and nation for the first time in history. Puʿukohola is the only heiau in the archipelago associated with this significant time period in the history of the Hawaiian Islands, and therefore continues to be a highly important cultural and historical site (Greene 1993).


Associated Press (June 3, 2013) Trade winds drop, and Hawaii gets muggy. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/trade-winds-drop-hawaii-gets-muggy-080531040.html

Businger, S., S. daSilva, K. Stone, I. Ellinwood, and P.W.U. Chinn (2012) Local winds and rains of Hawaiʻi: I Kamaʻāina I Nā Makani A Me Nā Ua. Kahua A‘o. A Learning Foundation. University of Hawaiʿi.

Cunningham, G. (2009) Newsletter of the Pacific Island Network. July – September 2009:17.

Garza, J.A., P.-S. Chu, C.W. Norton, and T.A. Schroeder (2012) Changes of the prevailing trade winds over the islands of Hawaiʿi and the North Pacific. Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, D11109, doi:10.1029/2011JD016888.

Greene, L.W. (1993) A cultural history of three traditional Hawaiian Sites on the west coast of Hawai’i Island. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center. Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/kona/history.htm

Kawaiaea Jr., D. (Feb. 27, 2013) Personal communication.

Leopold, L.B. (1949) The interaction of trade wind and sea breeze, Hawaiʿi. Journal of Meteorology, 6: 312-320.

Mason, G. (Mar. 8, 2013) Personal communication.

National Park Service (2014) Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai’i: History and culture. Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/puhe/historyculture/index.htm

National Park Service (2014) Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai’I Island, Hawai’i. Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Puukohola_Heiau_National_Historic_Site.html

National Park Service (2012) The two conflicting winds of Kawaihae. The National Parks of the Pacific Islands. Retrieved from http://pacificislandparks.com/2012/07/12/the-two-conflicting-winds-of-kawaihae/

National Park Service (2004) Environmental assessment: Reestablishment of the historic scene at Puʿukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaiʿi County, Hawaiʿi. Prepared by Tetra Tech, Inc, for Hawaiʿi County.

Newman, M. (2013) Atmospheric Science: Winds of Change. Nature Climate Change, 3: 538-539.

Pacific Worlds (2006) Kawaihae – Land – Winds. Retrieved from http://www.pacificworlds.com/kawaihae/land/winds.cfm

Pukui, M.K. (1983) ʿŌlelo Noʿeau: Hawaiian proverbs & political Sayings. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication No. 71. Bishop Museum Press: Honolulu, Hawaiʿi.

Saldua, B. (Jan. 8, 2014) Personal communication.

Schroeder, T.A. (1981) Characteristics of local winds in northwest Hawaiʿi. Journal of Applied Meteorology, 20: 874-881.

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