Geography of Hawaii
Facts and information about the geography of the
The Hawaiian archipelago is a string of islands and reefs, 3,300 kilometers
long, that forms a broad arc in the mid-Pacific. The archipelago begins in
the east with the island of Hawaii and ends almost at the international
date line with a small speck in the ocean called Kure Atoll (Map 16 : 21K).
Only the easternmost 650 kilometers of the state contains islands of any
size, as well as almost all of the state's population. It is this portion
that is usually considered as the actual "Hawaii."
The eight main islands of Hawaii--Oahu, Hawaii, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai,
Niihau, and Kahoolawe--contain more than 99 percent of the state's land area
and all but a handful of its people. The island of Hawaii, at 8,150 square
kilometers, comprises nearly two-thirds of the state's total area, and it
is often referred to as simply the Big Island. The smallest of the eight,
Kahoolawe, is 125 square kilometers and is uninhabited.
Local and Physical Setting
Hawaii is near the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Honolulu, the state capital,
is 3,850 kilometers west of San Francisco, California, 6,500 kilometers east
of Tokyo, Japan, and roughly 7,300 kilometers northeast of the Australian coast.
This might be viewed as a case of extreme isolation, and until the last few
centuries this was probably true. But as countries around the Pacific Basin
began to communicate more with one another and to use the ocean's resources,
these islands became an important center of interaction.
The Hawaiian chain is merely the visible portion of a series of massive volcanoes.
The ocean floor in this area is 4,000 to 5,000 meters below sea level. Hence,
for a volcano to break the water's surface requires a mountain already
approaching 5 kilometers in height.
The kind of volcanic activity that created the islands and that continues there
today has, for the most part, not been of the explosive type in which large
pieces of material are thrown great distances. Volcanic cones resulting from
explosive eruptions do exist on the islands. Diamond Head, the Honolulu landmark,
is the largest at about 240 meters. More common, however, are features formed
from a gradual buildup of material as a sequence of lava flows piled one layer
on top of another. The usual shape of volcanic mountains formed in this way
is domelike, with the main feature being undulating slopes instead of steep
Several of the volcanos on the Big Island remain active. Mauna Loa pours out
lava on the average of once every four years, and volcanic activity poses a
constant threat to Hilo, the island's largest town. A 1950 eruption covered
some 100 square kilometers. Another volcano, Kiluea, is usually active, but
lava actually flows from it about once in every seven years. A 1960 flow
from Kiluea covered 10 square kilometers, adding some 260 hectares to the
Hawaii is a state of rugged slopes and abrupt changes in elevation. This is
the result of the erosion of the volcanic surfaces by moving water. Sea cliffs
cut by waves form a spectacular edge to parts of the islands. Such cliffs on
the northeast side of Molokai stand as much as 1,150 meters above the water
and are among the world's highest; others on Kauai exceed 600 meters. Some
small streams on the northeast side of the Big Island drop over such cliffs
directly into the sea.
Stream erosion has heavily dissected many of the lava surfaces. Canyons lace
many of the domes. The floor of Waimea Canyon, on Kauai, is more than 800 meters
below the surface of the surrounding land. Waterfalls several hundred meters
high are common on the islands. The Pali, on Oahu, is a line of cliffs where
the headwaters of streams eroding from opposite sides of the island meet.
Those flowing east have eroded the ridges separating them to cut a broad
lowland; the westward-facing valleys are higher and remain separated by
One important result of this intense erosive action is a limited amount of
level land on the islands. Kauai is particularly rugged, with the only
lowlands formed as a thin coastal fringe. Maui has a flat, narrow central
portion separating mountainous extremities. Molokai is reasonably flat on its
western end. Oahu has a broad central valley plus some sizable coastal lowlands.
The island of Hawaii has only some limited coastal lava plains.
Hawaii's oceanic location obviously has a substantial impact on its climate.
It is the ocean that fills the winds with the water that brush the islands'
mountains. The ocean also moderates the islands' temperature
record high of 31°C is matched by a record low of only 13°C.
The latitude of Honolulu, about 20°N, is the same as Calcutta and Mexico City.
As a result, there is little change in the length of daylight or the angle of
incidence of the sun's rays from one season to another. This factor, plus the
state's maritime position, means that there is little seasonal variation in
It is variations in precipitation that mark the major changes in season on the
islands. During the summer, Hawaii is under the persistent influence of northeast
trade winds, which approach the islands over cool waters located to the northeast
and create characteristic Hawaiian weather--breezy, sunny with some clouds, warm
but not hot. In winter, these trade winds disappear, sometimes for weeks,
allowing "invasions" of storms from the north and northwest. Honolulu has
received as much as 43 centimeters of rain in a single 24-hour period.
Hawaiian weather stations have also recorded 28 centimeters in an hour and
100 centimeters in a day, both of which rank near world records.
The topography of the islands creates extreme variations in precipitation from
one location to another. Mount Waialeale, on Kauai, receives 1,234 centimeters
annually, making it one of the world's wettest spots, and Waimea, also on Kauai,
receives about 50 centimeters annually--yet these two sites are only 25
kilometers apart. Within the metropolitan area of Honolulu, it is possible
to live near the beach in a semiarid climate with less than 50 centimeters
of rainfall annually or inland near Pali on the margins of a rain forest
drenched by 300 centimeters of precipitation a year. Unlike the Pacific
Northwest, the greatest precipitation on the higher mountains in Hawaii occurs
at fairly low elevations, usually between 600 and 1,200 meters.
Much of the volcanic soil is permeable. This allows water to percolate rapidly,
draining beyond the reach of many plants. Thus, many areas of moderate to low
precipitation are arid in appearance.
The isolation of the Hawaiian islands, coupled with their generally temperate
climate and great environmental variation, has created a plant and bird community
of vast diversity. There are several thousand plants native there and found
naturally nowhere else; 66 uniquely Hawaiian land birds have also been identified.
Interestingly, there were no land mammals on the islands until humans arrived.
Populating the Islands
The Polynesian settlement of Hawaii was a segment in one of humankind's most
audacious periods of ocean voyaging. These people set out on repeated voyages
in open canoes across broad oceanic expanses separating small island clusters.
Settlers who came to Hawaii 1,000 years ago, for example, are presumed to have
come from the Marquesas, 4,000 kilometers to the southwest. There was some kind
of pre-Polynesian population on the island, but it was probably absorbed by the
newcomers. A second substantial wave of Polynesian migrants arrived 500 or 600
The massive effort required by these voyages apparently became too great. As
a result, Hawaii spent several hundred years in isolation after the second
migration period. During the isolation, the Hawaiians solidified a complicated
social organization in their insular paradise. Hereditary rulers held absolute
sway over their populations and owned all of the land. By the late 18th century,
when Europeans found the islands, the benign environment supported a population
that numbered about 300,000.
The first European to visit Hawaii, which he dubbed the Sandwich Islands, was
Captain James Cook in 1778. Cook was killed on the shore of the Big Island,
but news of his discovery spread rapidly after reaching Europe and North America;
it was quickly recognized that the islands were the best location for a waystation
to exploit the trade developing between North America and Asia.
In the 1820s, the whaling industry moved into the North Pacific and, for the
next half-century, the islands became the principal rest and resupply center
for whalers. About the same time, Protestant missionaries came to the islands.
Like most of the whalers, they were from the northeastern United States. They
were very successful in their missionary work, and for decades had a major
influence on the islanders.
The first Hawaiian sugar plantation was established in 1837, although the
islands did not become a substantial producer until after the middle of the
century. Between then and the end of the 19th century, Hawaii grew to the rank
of a major world sugar exporter.
This development led to a need for agricultural laborers. Native Hawaiians were
used for a time, but their declining numbers provided nothing like the labor
force needed. Thus, between 1852 and 1930, plantation owners brought 400,000
agricultural laborers, mostly Asian, to Hawaii. In 1852, ethnic Hawaiians
represented over 95 percent of the population of the islands. By 1900, they
were less than 15 percent of the total population of just over 150,000,
whereas nearly 75 percent were Oriental.
After 1930, the mainland United States became the main source of new residents
in Hawaii. In 1910, only about one resident of Hawaii in five was of European
ancestry (referred to in Hawaii as Caucasian). Now, nearly 40 percent of the
state's population is Caucasian or part-Caucasian.
The population of Hawaii fell from its pre-European peak to a low of 54,000 in
1876 before beginning to grow again. By the early 1920s, the state's population
had reached pre-European levels, and in 1988, the state had 1.1 million residents.
Because of immigration, Hawaii's annual rate of population growth is well above
the U.S. average.
The pre-European population was spread across the islands, with the Big Island
occupied by the largest number of people. Since European discovery, the islands'
population has been concentrated increasingly on Oahu. Honolulu, with its fine
harbor, became the principal port city.
The political history of Hawaii was turbulent during the 120 years after Cook's
discovery. The various kingdoms of the islands were eliminated by a strong chief,
Kamehameha, between 1785 and 1795. The missionaries' growing influence gradually
made a sham of the authority of the Hawaiian rulers, and, during the 19th century,
competing European political interests moved in to fill the resulting vacuum.
But the increasing role of Americans made it inevitable that, if Hawaii was to
lose its political independence, it would be annexed by the United States. As
American plantation owners increased in number and influence, their dissatisfaction
with the Hawaiian government grew. In 1887, they forced the monarchy to accept an
elected government controlled by the planters. The monarchy was overthrown
completely in 1893, and the new revolutionary government immediately requested
annexation by the United States. Initially refused, they were finally accepted
as a territory in 1898.
No provision was made at the time of annexation for the eventual admission of
Hawaii to statehood, and it was not until 1959, after Alaska was admitted to the
union, that Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state.
The Hawaiian Economy
Roughly half of all land in Hawaii is government owned, with the state, not the
federal government, controlling 80 percent of that land. Most of it is in the
agriculturally less desirable portions of the islands, and the bulk is in forest
reserves and conservation districts. Most federal lands are primarily in national
parks on the Big Island and Maui, or in military holdings on Oahu and Kahoolawe.
Seven-eighths of all privately owned land in Hawaii is in the hands of only 39
owners; each owns 2,000 hectares or more. Six different landowners each control
more than 40,000 hectares out of a state total of about 1,040,000 hectares.
Smaller unit ownership of private land is most extensive on Oahu, but even there
the larger owners control more than two-thirds of all privately owned land.
Two of the islands, Lanai and Niihau, are each nearly entirely controlled by a
single owner, and on all of the other islands (except Oahu) major landowners
control about 90 percent of all privately held property.
Most of these large landholdings were created during the 19th century period of
freewheeling exploitation on the islands. Land had previously been held entirely
by the monarchies. This land passed into the hands of non-Hawaiian private owners
during the political decline of the monarchy. With the deaths of the early owners,
most estates have been given over to trusts to administer rather than passing
directly to heirs. This has made it difficult to break up the ownership patterns,
which has led to high land values and pockets of high population density.
Sugar, and later pineapples, fueled the Hawaiian economy for many decades after
the 1860s. The economy remained primarily agricultural until the late 1940s. In
recent decades, agriculture has continued to show modest gains in income, but
its relative importance has declined. Only one Hawaiian worker in 30 is currently
employed in agriculture.
However, Hawaii continues to provide a substantial share of the world's sugar
harvest, and its production of pineapples is about 650,000 tons annually, making
it the world's largest supplier of pineapples.
Gross economic statistics overwhelmingly emphasize the position of Oahu, where
more than 80 percent of the state's economy is concentrated. The role of agriculture
remains great on the other islands. Both Lanai and Molokai depend on pineapples
for much of their employment and income. Livestock and sugar form the backbone
of the economy on the Big Island, as do sugar and pineapples on Maui and Kauai.
As agriculture declined and lost its dominance over the Hawaiian economy, its
place was first taken by the federal government. Over the past several decades,
governmental expenditures have increased at a rate roughly comparable to the
growth of the total economy, maintaining about a one-third share of all
expenditures. Most of this has come from the military, which controls almost
25 percent of Oahu, including the land around Pearl Harbor, one of the finest
natural harbors in the Pacific. Nearly one Hawaiian worker in four is an employee
of the military, and military personnel and their dependents together represent
over 10 percent of Hawaii's population. The armed forces are also the largest
civilian employer in the state.
Tourism is a major industry, with over 4.5 million people visiting the state
each year. Tourism has become the principal growth sector of the economy,
increasing its share of total island income from 4 percent in 1950 to over 30
The major Hawaiian islands are part of the same state, they have similar geologic
histories, and they are closely spaced in a vast ocean, yet each has its own
character. Oahu is densely populated and intensely used, and it offers a view of
bustle and confusion common to urban America. The island of Hawaii, the Big Island,
by comparison has an air of relative space and distance, with large ranches, high,
barren volcanos, and large stretches of almost treeless land. Its land area is
dominated by five huge shield volcanoes. Sugar, cattle ranching, and tourism are
its major industries.
Kauai, sometimes called the garden isle because of its lush tropical vegetation,
is heavily eroded into a spectacular scenery of mountains, canyons, cliffs, and
waterfalls. Kauai is becoming increasingly popular with tourists because of its
dramatic physical environment. Neighboring Niihau is privately owned and is
operated as the Niihau Ranch Company. Most of its few hundred residents are
Maui, the second largest of the islands, offers a contrast between the plantations
of its central lowlands and the rugged mountains to either side. Tourist development,
concentrated along the western coastal strip, has been intense, with the result that
Maui had the most rapid rate of population increase of any of the islands in the
1970s and 1980s. Still, much of the rest of the island remains little changed and
Molokai is half ranchland and half rugged mountains. Its north coast is dominated
by spectacular sea cliffs as much as 1,100 meters high, while the south shore is
a broad coastal plain. It is perhaps the least economically developed of the
populated Hawaiian Islands.
Lanai and Kahoolawe are both in the lea of much higher Maui. As a result, both
are dry. Neither have any permanent streams. Pineapple production is the only
important economic activity on Lanai. The U.S. Navy administers Kahoolawe and
uses it for military exercises.
Facts About the Geography of Hawaii
Hawaii Geographic Alliance
Islands of Hawaii
Hawaii for Visitors
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