of Hawaii

Overview: Location

The Hawaiian Islands are located close to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco lies 2,400 miles to the east, while Asia is 4,000 miles west of the islands. The entire Hawaiian Archipelago extends 2,050 miles from the Island of Hawaii (the Big Island) to the Kure Atoll. The entire archipelago, except for the military base of Midway Island, is part of the State of Hawaii.


Despite a relatively remote location, Hawaii is one of the most popular recreation destinations in the world, receiving close to five million visitors a year. Visitors are attracted to the tropical beauty of the islands, the sun and surf recreational activities, and some of the most active and observable volcanoes in the world.

The Main Islands

The most visited part of Hawaii is its eastern end where four main islands and four smaller islands are located. About 99% of the state's entire land area is located at this easternmost 650 miles of the archipelago. The four larger islands are discussed first, moving from the eastern end to the west.

Hawaii: The Big Island

The island of Hawaii (aka the "Big Island"), at about 80 miles wide and 100 miles from north to south, contains 2/3 of the entire land area of the state. Its 1986 estimated population of 111,800 comprises only 11% of the one million people living in Hawaii. Maui is the second largest island, but only about 1/5 of the size of Hawaii. Maui County statistics includes the smaller pineapple plantation islands of Molokai and Lanai. The three islands together have a total population of 87,500 (1986). The small, uninhabited island of Kaho'olawe is located just off the coast of Maui. It is a highly sacred island to the Hawaiians - being the site of their maritime sailing "university" for possibly a thousand years, but was used as a military bombing range from World War II until 1990. Oahu, at 1/6 the size of Hawaii, is the third largest island in the archipelago. It is also the most important island, having 77% (816,700) of the state's population and producing 80% of its economic output--all on only 9.2% of the state's land area. Honolulu, the state capital and largest city is also located on the south coast of Oahu. Kauai is the fourth largest island and most distant from the other larger islands. Along with the island of Ni'ihau (a private island reserved for Hawaiians only), it has a population of some 55,000 (1990), approximately a quarter of whom are either full or part Hawaiian. It is known as "The Garden Isle" for its rich tropical vegetation and dramatic landscapes.

The Northwestern Islands

Most of the northwestern islands are coral reef atolls. At one time they were as high and wide as the Big Island. Rain and waves have eroded them away. Today the bases of the old volcanoes are located below sea level. The land surface of these atolls is comprised of the accumulated and compressed exoskeleton of coral. Kure Atoll, at the far western end, was a volcano probably over 12,000 feet high some 30 million years ago. Today it is less than 20 feet above sea level. Coral atoll islands that were once volcanoes are scattered throughout the south and east Pacific Ocean. Additional undersea mountain stubs extend another 500 miles northwest of Kure Atoll. This undersea chain is an extension of the Hawaiian archipelago known as the Emperor Sea Mount. They are not, however, owned by any country.

Physical Geography of Hawaii

Hot Spot Mountain Building

The Hawaiian Islands were created by a geologic hot spot underneath the surface of the earth. As the ocean floor moves over this spot, magma pushes forth creating new land and islands in the form of volcanoes. The Hawaiian Islands are the uppermost crests of these volcanoes. The Loihi Sea Mount, southeast of the Big Island, is the newest volcano, which is still a couple of thousand feet below the ocean's surface. The heat that melts rock the magma deep inside the earth is believed to be generated by radioactive minerals. Geologists believe that each volcano has its own conduit into the earth's magma. As the Pacific plate moves northwestward, the volcanic islands of Hawaii move away from the hot spot and lose their mountain building material. The islands have moved 660 feet since the time of Christ, and one mile since the Rocky Mountains rose some 60,000 years ago. Rain, ocean waves, lichen and plants quickly erode the huge lava mountains created by the hot spot. The further away from the hot spot that an island is, the older and more eroded it is.

The Hawaiian Island Volcanoes: Geologic Age

Kauai is the oldest of the main islands. It was first formed about five million years ago, and remained active until about 1.5 million years ago. Given the great distance that it has moved from the hot spot, and the large size and height (over 5,000 feet) it still maintains, it must have been an incredibly massive volcano when it was active. The highest peaks on Oahu, 75 miles to the east of Kauai, just reach 4,000 feet. Geologically, Oahu today consists of the half remnants of two volcanoes, Waianae (2.75 million year old) and Koolau (2.5 million years old), and the valley that lies between them. Diamond Head, on the edge of Koolau, is only 20,000 years old, indicating the unpredictability of supposedly dormant volcanoes. Haleakala volcano, at 10,020 feet, dominates Maui. It is 1.5 million years old and last erupted in 1790. Its caldera is located within Haleakala National Park. In the vicinity of Haleakala are several smaller volcanoes that comprise west Maui, Molokai (2 of them), Lanai, and Kaho'olawe. These are all about 1.25 million years old, but have not erupted for at least 30,000 years. Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho'olawe once comprised a single island of six volcanoes, similar in size to the Big Island of Hawaii. Erosive forces have separated the different peaks into the four islands found today. Hawaii, the Big Island, is the youngest and largest island of the archipelago. Its north side consists of two extinct volcanoes, Kohala and Mauna Kea, each of which is one million years old. Kohala is a deeply eroded ridgeline that barely resembles a volcano. Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet, last erupted some 3,000 years ago. There are also three active volcanoes on the island: (900,000 years old), Hualalai on the Kona Coast (750,000 years old), and Kilauea (100,000 years old). Hualalai last erupted in 1801. Mauna Loa erupts about twice each decade. Kilauea is almost constantly erupting and enlarging the island. In the 1980s, Kilauea's lava flows were responsible for destroying several hundred homes in the southeast corner of the Big Island.

Basalt Shield Volcanoes and Composite Volcanoes

Mauna Kea, measured from its base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, is some 33,500 feet high, making it by far the world's tallest mountain. Mauna Loa ranks as the world's most massive mountain: it contains more material than any other single mountain. Both of these magnificent peaks, along with the rest of Hawaii, are basaltic shield volcanoes. The volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest are known as composite (or strato) volcanoes and are characterized by steep slopes created by thick lava flows, and highly volatile explosions caused by the great mix of material which is melted deep below them by subduction. The Hawaiian volcanoes do not have this great mix of material. Instead, they are almost entirely made up of basalt--the material that underlies the ocean floor. Basalt eruptions are much less explosive, and basalt lava flows are very fluid, traveling long distances. This causes the shield (aka "dome") volcanoes to have very gentle slopes, and to extend over vast areas. Kilauea's non-explosive eruptions make for a popular tourist attraction on the Big Island.


Erosion of the lava flows begins soon after they have hardened and cooled. Ocean waves batter the sides of the mountains, lichens grow over the rocks breaking them down into soil, while plants split them apart. Rain fed streams carve deep gorges in the sides of the volcanoes, and during the ice ages glaciers have been known to form on the highest peaks.

Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US. At 20 degrees above the equator, it lies at the same latitude as Mexico City and Calcutta, India. The sun is almost directly overhead all year round. In addition, the moderating influence of the Pacific ocean help to keep temperatures stable year round. (By the time Arctic air masses reach Hawaii, they are 100 degrees warmer than when they left the north pole.) Honolulu's average January temperature of 72 degrees F. is only six degrees cooler than its average July temperature.

Storms and Hurricanes

Hawaii lies in between the tracks of the north Pacific storms moving from west to east, and the equatorial hurricanes moving from east to west. Occasionally in the winter months a north Pacific storm will migrate as far south as Hawaii, bringing considerable rain, especially to the northeast windward sides of the islands. Tropical hurricanes have also migrated toward Hawaii in the summer months, but rarely have they actually hit the islands. The major exception this century, however, was the hurricane which devastated the island of Kauai in 1992.

Orographic Rain

The orographic uplifting of trade winds air brings most of the rain to the Hawaiian Islands. The trade winds are caused by the Pacific high pressure system, which brings the summer dry climate to CA. It also brings steady and dependable breezes to the northeast (windward) sides of the Hawaiian Islands. As this air rises, condensation occurs and summer rains fall. These rains bring 451 inches of rain a year to Mt. Waialeale in Kauai, making it the wettest spot on earth. On the big island, the windward city of Hilo received over 45 inches of rain in November 1990. On the leeward (opposite) side of the islands, the clouds dissipate as the air descends, creating an arid climate. Summer rains sometimes occur on the lee side of the islands caused by the heating up of the land. As the land surface gets hotter the air above it rises, pulling moist air off of the coast. As the moist air rises up the island's side, orographic clouds form and rain can occur. This phenomenon is more common on the higher mountains of Maui and Hawaii than on the smaller islands.

Big Island Climate: A Miniature Continent

The Big Island has most of the different climate types on the surface of the earth. Tropical rain forests are found on the northeast windward side (the side facing the trade winds), which receives 200 inches of precipitation. Arid desert vegetation typifies portions of the rain shadow western side of the island, where less than five inches of rain fall a year. Altitudinal zonation (discussed in the Mountain West chapter) creates a variety of different climatic and vegetative environments on the sides of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, with near tundra-like conditions at the peaks where violent snow and ice storms occur. Tsunamis (a.k.a. seismic sea waves) are a constant threat to the coastal settlement of Hawaii. An earthquake in any part of the Pacific Ring of Fire can trigger a tsunami which could hit Hawaii. Tsunamis are caused by sudden drops in the underground seabed, causing a displacement of ocean water, and a resulting wave gush. (Note: these are not "tidal waves" which are caused by storms and unusually high tides.)

Human Geography of Hawaii


Polynesian settlement of Hawaii occurred in two stages: over 1,000 years ago and 600 years ago. In both instances, the Polynesian settlers had to cross 4,000 miles of largely open ocean to reach Hawaii from the south Pacific. They used the stars and a great sensitivity to ocean currents to navigate their voyages.

Captain Cook and European Arrival

In 1778, Captain James Cook arrived. Although at first he was welcomed as a god, upon returning shortly thereafter he was killed by Native Hawaiians. By the 1820s, the Hawaiian Islands had become an important whaling station for European fishermen. There were also large numbers of missionaries arriving on the islands by this time. As in TX and CA, American settlers overthrew the local rulers, in this case the Hawaiian monarchy of Queen Lili'uokalani, in 1893. Hawaii became a US territory in 1900 and the 50th US state in 1959.

The Impact on Native Hawaiians

Native Hawaiians and their culture have been devastated by the arrival of Europeans. As with American Indians, infectious diseases wiped out large numbers of them. Famine increased dramatically as traditional agricultural methods were replaced by European methods. Their traditional religion has been all but lost. Out of the 300,000 or more Hawaiians that lived on the islands when Captain Cook arrived, only 10,000 full-blooded Hawaiians are left today. In addition, they are the only Native Americans in the US without a semi-sovereign reservation status, although in 1994 the military turned the island of Kaho'olawe over to the State of Hawaii to hold in trust for the Hawaiian Sovereign Nation. This major victory for the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, make the island equivalent to a state recognized reservation, but not a federally recognized one.

Ethnic Groups in Hawaii

In 1980, the different ethnic groups in Hawaii, not including temporary military personnel, were:

26% Caucasian
24% Japanese
18% Part-Hawaiian Mix
11% Filipino
9% Non-Hawaiian Mix
5% Chinese
1% each: Korean, Black, Samoan, Pure Hawaiian, and Puerto Rican

Ethnic Harmony

Hawaii is often looked upon as a model of inter-racial harmony. Inter-racial weddings account for about 50% of all marriages in the state. Residential housing exhibits a high degree of integration, although higher income Caucasians, Japanese and Chinese tend to live apart from lower income Filipinos, Samoans and Hawaiians.

Ethnic Stereotypes

Ethnic stereotypes, however, do exist. The Japanese control all levels of the government in Hawaii. They are viewed by Caucasians as being more acceptable than other Pacific-Asian peoples, and by the Pacific-Asians as being more acceptable than Caucasians. Some Caucasians, Chinese and Hawaiians hold token positions in the government. The Chinese are among the wealthiest business people in Hawaii, and are resented for it. Caucasians, especially those not born in Hawaii, are resented by all of the other groups because they are perceived to have more privileges in the larger American society to which the state belongs.

Sugar Cane and Pineapples

Sugar cane plantations, along with some pineapple and papaya plantations, were the basis of the Hawaiian economy up until World War II. Hawaii was once the world's leader in sugar cane and pineapple production. It still maintains its lead in pineapples (grown on Molokai and Lanai), but sugar cane has rapidly declined in importance due to competition from Asia and Latin American. Sugar cane today is mostly grown on the Big Island, and requires large federal subsidies. Unfortunately, the large amount of topsoil lost in sugar cane production has thus far made the land unsuitable for any potential replacement crops.

Other Agricultural Products

In addition to sugar cane and pineapples, the state grows bananas, papayas, coconuts, macadamia nuts, orchids, and illegal marijuana for sale to the mainland US. Almost all of the papayas consumed in the US are grown on the Big Island of Hawaii. The largest cattle ranch in the US (and one of the largest in the world) is also located on the Big Island.

The Federal Governmentv

After World War II, the US government came to replace agriculture as the largest employer in Hawaii. This was primarily due to the strategic military importance of Hawaii's location in the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii today is the headquarters for the US Pacific Command, overseeing all US military activity in the Pacific Ocean basin. The military directly controls 25% of the land in Hawaii, and military personnel account for 13% of the state's population. The biggest impact has been on Oahu, home of Pearl Harbor. Military presence on the other islands is minimal.


In 1936, Pan Am's China Clipper began the first regularly scheduled flights to Hawaii from the US mainland (en route to Fiji and then on to Asia). However, it was not until the 1950s, when the first large passenger jets were introduced, that most of the visitors to Hawaii began arriving by air instead of sea. By 1965, Hawaii was receiving 320,000 visitors a year. This number reached two million by 1971 and is close to five million in the 1980s. With increased arrivals came increased incomes and today tourism is equal to federal expenditures in Hawaii's economy.

Land Ownership

Half of all the land in Hawaii is government owned. The state of Hawaii owns 80% of this government land, and the federal government the rest. (I realize that these figures do not jive with those quoted for the federal government above. I have some conflicting sources and am still trying to sort this out.) Most of the state owned land is in forests and conservation districts. Of the remaining private land, 87% is owned by 39 land owners, the largest being the Bishop Estate. The situation of such large state land holdings and so few private land owners is unique in the US and partly reflects the colonial occupation of Hawaii by Americans. The result is that land is less influenced by free market forces and is very expensive. Honolulu ranks as the most costly city in the entire US in which to live, with home prices average $275,000 (1988), almost twice that of any mainland city.

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