United States Geography

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. 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.


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 cliffs.

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 island's size.

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 ridges.

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 extremes--Honolulu's record high of 31C is matched by a record low of only 13C.

The latitude of Honolulu, about 20N, 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 temperature.

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.


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 years ago.

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.


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 percent today.


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 native Hawaiians.

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 sparsely populated.

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.

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Source: U.S. Department of State