Hawaiian Islands

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Hawaiian Islands
Native name:
Mokupuni o Hawai‘i
The Windward Islands of Hawaii
Hawaiianislandchain USGS.png
Location North Pacific Ocean
Coordinates 20°54′00″N156°36′00″W / 20.90000°N 156.60000°W / 20.90000; -156.60000 Coordinates: 20°54′00″N156°36′00″W / 20.90000°N 156.60000°W / 20.90000; -156.60000
Total islands137
Highest point
United States
State Hawaii
Unincorporated territory Midway Atoll
Largest settlement Honolulu

The Hawaiian Islands (Hawaiian : Nā Mokupuni o Hawai‘i) are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, and numerous smaller islets in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the island of Hawaiʻi in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll. Formerly the group was known to Europeans and Americans as the Sandwich Islands, a name that James Cook chose in honor of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the then First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook came across the islands by chance when crossing the Pacific Ocean on his Third Voyage in 1778, on board HMS Resolution; he was later killed on the islands on a return visit. The contemporary name of the islands, dating from the 1840s, is derived from the name of the largest island, Hawaiʻi Island.


Hawaii sits on the Pacific Plate and is the only U.S. state that is not geographically connected to North America. It is part of the Polynesia subregion of Oceania. The state of Hawaii occupies the archipelago almost in its entirety (including the mostly uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), with the sole exception of Midway Atoll, which also belongs to the United States, as one of its unincorporated territories within the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

Hawaii is the exposed peaks of a great undersea mountain range known as the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain, formed by volcanic activity over a hotspot in the Earth's mantle. The islands are about 1,860 miles (3,000 km) from the nearest continent.

Islands and reefs

The date of the first settlements of the Hawaiian Islands is a topic of continuing debate. [1] Archaeological evidence seems to indicate a settlement as early as 124 AD. [2]

Captain James Cook, RN, visited the islands on January 18, 1778, [3] and named them the "Sandwich Islands" in honor of The 4th Earl of Sandwich, who as the First Lord of the Admiralty was one of his sponsors. [4] This name was in use until the 1840s, when the local name "Hawaii" gradually began to take precedence. [5]

The Hawaiian Islands have a total land area of 6,423.4 square miles (16,636.5 km2). Except for Midway, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States, these islands and islets are administered as Hawaii—the 50th state of the United States. [6]

Major islands

(as of 2020)
DensityHighest pointElevationAge (Ma) [7] Location
Hawaiʻi [8] The Big Island1 4,028.0 sq mi (10,432.5 km2)200,629445.948/sq mi (17.7407/km2) Mauna Kea 1 13,796 ft (4,205 m)0.4 19°34′N155°30′W / 19.567°N 155.500°W / 19.567; -155.500 (Hawaii)
Maui [9] The Valley Isle2 727.2 sq mi (1,883.4 km2)164,2212198.630/sq mi (76.692/km2) Haleakalā 2 10,023 ft (3,055 m)1.3–0.8 20°48′N156°20′W / 20.800°N 156.333°W / 20.800; -156.333 (Maui)
Oʻahu [10] The Gathering Place3 596.7 sq mi (1,545.4 km2)1,016,50811,597.46/sq mi (616.78/km2) Mount Kaʻala 5 4,003 ft (1,220 m)3.7–2.6 21°28′N157°59′W / 21.467°N 157.983°W / 21.467; -157.983 (Oahu)
Kauaʻi [11] The Garden Isle4 552.3 sq mi (1,430.5 km2)73,2983121.168/sq mi (46.783/km2) Kawaikini 3 5,243 ft (1,598 m)5.1 22°05′N159°30′W / 22.083°N 159.500°W / 22.083; -159.500 (Kauai)
Molokaʻi [12] The Friendly Isle5 260.0 sq mi (673.4 km2)7,345528.250/sq mi (10.9074/km2) Kamakou 4 4,961 ft (1,512 m)1.9–1.8 21°08′N157°02′W / 21.133°N 157.033°W / 21.133; -157.033 (Molokai)
Lānaʻi [13] The Pineapple Isle6 140.5 sq mi (363.9 km2)3,367622.313/sq mi (8.615/km2) Lānaʻihale 6 3,366 ft (1,026 m)1.3 20°50′N156°56′W / 20.833°N 156.933°W / 20.833; -156.933 (Lanai)
Niʻihau [14] The Forbidden Isle7 69.5 sq mi (180.0 km2)8472.45/sq mi (0.944/km2) Mount Pānīʻau 8 1,250 ft (381 m)4.9 21°54′N160°10′W / 21.900°N 160.167°W / 21.900; -160.167 (Niihau)
Kahoʻolawe [15] The Target Isle8 44.6 sq mi (115.5 km2)08 0/sq mi (0/km2)Puʻu Moaulanui7 1,483 ft (452 m)1.0 20°33′N156°36′W / 20.550°N 156.600°W / 20.550; -156.600 (Kahoolawe)

The eight major islands of Hawaii (Windward Islands) are listed above. All except Kaho'olawe are inhabited. [16]

Minor islands, islets

Hawaiian Islands from space. ISS-38 Hawaiian Island chain.jpg
Hawaiian Islands from space.
3-D perspective view of the southeastern Hawaiian Islands, with the white summits of Mauna Loa (4,170 m or 13,680 ft high) and Mauna Kea (4,207.3 m or 13,803 ft high). The islands are the tops of massive volcanoes, the bulk of which lie below the sea surface. Ocean depths are colored from violet (5,750 m or 18,860 ft deep northeast of Maui) and indigo to light gray (shallowest). Historical lava flows are shown in red, erupting from the summits and rift zones of Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Hualalai volcanoes on Hawai`i. 2003-3d-hawaiian-islands-usgs-i2809.jpg
3-D perspective view of the southeastern Hawaiian Islands, with the white summits of Mauna Loa (4,170 m or 13,680 ft high) and Mauna Kea (4,207.3 m or 13,803 ft high). The islands are the tops of massive volcanoes, the bulk of which lie below the sea surface. Ocean depths are colored from violet (5,750 m or 18,860 ft deep northeast of Maui) and indigo to light gray (shallowest). Historical lava flows are shown in red, erupting from the summits and rift zones of Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Hualalai volcanoes on Hawaiʻi.

The state of Hawaii counts 137 "islands" in the Hawaiian chain. [18] This number includes all minor islands (small islands), islets (even smaller islands) offshore of the major islands (listed above) and individual islets in each atoll. These are just a few:

Partial islands, atolls, reefs

A composite satellite image from NASA of the Hawaiian Islands taken from outer space. Click on the image for a larger view that shows the main islands and the extended archipelago. NASA Hawaiian Islands full quality.png
A composite satellite image from NASA of the Hawaiian Islands taken from outer space. Click on the image for a larger view that shows the main islands and the extended archipelago.

Partial islands, atolls, reefs (west of Niʻihau are uninhabited except Midway Atoll) form the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Leeward Islands):


Eruptions from the Hawaii hotspot left a trail of underwater mountains across the Pacific over millions of years, called the Emperor Seamounts. Hawaii hotspot.jpg
Eruptions from the Hawaii hotspot left a trail of underwater mountains across the Pacific over millions of years, called the Emperor Seamounts.

This chain of islands, or archipelago, developed as the Pacific Plate slowly moved northwestward over a hotspot in the Earth's mantle at a rate of approximately 32 miles (51 km) per million years. Thus, the southeast island is volcanically active, whereas the islands on the northwest end of the archipelago are older and typically smaller, due to longer exposure to erosion. The age of the archipelago has been estimated using potassium-argon dating methods. [19] From this study and others, [20] [21] it is estimated that the northwesternmost island, Kure Atoll, is the oldest at approximately 28 million years (Ma); while the southeasternmost island, Hawaiʻi, is approximately 0.4 Ma (400,000 years). The only active volcanism in the last 200 years has been on the southeastern island, Hawaiʻi, and on the submerged but growing volcano to the extreme southeast, Kamaʻehuakanaloa (formerly Loʻihi). The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the USGS documents recent volcanic activity and provides images and interpretations of the volcanism. Kīlauea had been erupting nearly continuously since 1983 when it stopped August 2018.

Almost all of the magma of the hotspot has the composition of basalt, and so the Hawaiian volcanoes are composed almost entirely of this igneous rock. There is very little coarser-grained gabbro and diabase. Nephelinite is exposed on the islands but is extremely rare. The majority of eruptions in Hawaiʻi are Hawaiian-type eruptions because basaltic magma is relatively fluid compared with magmas typically involved in more explosive eruptions, such as the andesitic magmas that produce some of the spectacular and dangerous eruptions around the margins of the Pacific basin.

Hawaiʻi island (the Big Island) is the biggest and youngest island in the chain, built from five volcanoes. Mauna Loa, taking up over half of the Big Island, is the largest shield volcano on the Earth. The measurement from sea level to summit is more than 2.5 miles (4 km), from sea level to sea floor about 3.1 miles (5 km). [22]


The Hawaiian Islands have many earthquakes, generally caused by volcanic activity. Most of the early earthquake monitoring took place in Hilo, by missionaries Titus Coan, Sarah J. Lyman and her family. Between 1833 and 1896, approximately 4 or 5 earthquakes were reported per year. [23]

Hawaii accounted for 7.3% of the United States' reported earthquakes with a magnitude 3.5 or greater from 1974 to 2003, with a total 1533 earthquakes. Hawaii ranked as the state with the third most earthquakes over this time period, after Alaska and California. [24]

On October 15, 2006, there was an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 off the northwest coast of the island of Hawaii, near the Kona area of the big island. The initial earthquake was followed approximately five minutes later by a magnitude 5.7 aftershock. Minor-to-moderate damage was reported on most of the Big Island. Several major roadways became impassable from rock slides, and effects were felt as far away as Honolulu, Oahu, nearly 150 miles (240 km) from the epicenter. Power outages lasted for several hours to days. Several water mains ruptured. No deaths or life-threatening injuries were reported.

On May 4, 2018, there was a 6.9 earthquake in the zone of volcanic activity from Kīlauea.

Earthquakes are monitored by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory run by the USGS.


Aftermath of the 1960 Chilean tsunami in Hilo, Hawai`i, where the tsunami left 61 people dead and 282 seriously injured. The waves reached 35 feet (11 m) high. 1960-Chilean-tsunami-Hilo-HI-USGS.jpg
Aftermath of the 1960 Chilean tsunami in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, where the tsunami left 61 people dead and 282 seriously injured. The waves reached 35 feet (11 m) high.

The Hawaiian Islands are subject to tsunamis, great waves that strike the shore. Tsunamis are most often caused by earthquakes somewhere in the Pacific. The waves produced by the earthquakes travel at speeds of 400–500 miles per hour (600–800 km/h) and can affect coastal regions thousands of miles (kilometers) away.

Tsunamis may also originate from the Hawaiian Islands. Explosive volcanic activity can cause tsunamis. The island of Molokaʻi had a catastrophic collapse or debris avalanche over a million years ago; this underwater landslide likely caused tsunamis. The Hilina Slump on the island of Hawaiʻi is another potential place for a large landslide and resulting tsunami.

The city of Hilo on the Big Island has been most affected by tsunamis, where the in-rushing water is accentuated by the shape of Hilo Bay. Coastal cities have tsunami warning sirens.

A tsunami resulting from an earthquake in Chile hit the islands on February 27, 2010. It was relatively minor, but local emergency management officials utilized the latest technology and ordered evacuations in preparation for a possible major event. The Governor declared it a "good drill" for the next major event.

A tsunami resulting from an earthquake in Japan hit the islands on March 11, 2011. It was relatively minor, but local officials ordered evacuations in preparation for a possible major event. The tsunami caused about $30.1 million in damages. [25]


There is no definitive date for the Polynesian discovery of Hawaii . However, high-precision radiocarbon dating in Hawaii using chronometric hygiene analysis, and taxonomic identification selection of samples, puts the initial such settlement of the Hawaiian Islands sometime between 1219 and 1266 A.D., originating from earlier settlements first established in the Society Islands around 1025 to 1120 A.D., and in the Marquesas Islands sometime between 1100 and 1200 A.D.

An expedition led by British explorer James Cook is usually considered to be the first group of Europeans to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands, which they did in 1778. However, Spanish historians and some other researchers state that the Spanish captain Ruy López de Villalobos was the first European to see the islands in 1542. The Spanish named these islands "Isla de Mesa, de los Monjes y Desgraciada" (1542), being on the route linking the Philippines with Mexico across the Pacific Ocean, between the ports of Acapulco and Manila, which were both part of New Spain. Within five years after Cook's arrival, European military technology helped Kamehameha I, ruler of the island of Hawaii, conquer and unify the islands for the first time, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1795. The kingdom was prosperous and important for its agriculture and strategic location in the Pacific.

American immigration, led by Protestant missionaries, and Native Hawaiian outmigration, mostly on whaling ships, began almost immediately after Cook's arrival. Americans set up plantations to grow sugar. Their methods of plantation farming required substantial labor. Waves of permanent immigrants came from Japan, China, and the Philippines to work in the fields. The government of Japan organized and gave special protection to its people, who comprised about 25 percent of the Hawaiian population by 1896. The Hawaiian monarchy encouraged this multi-ethnic society, initially establishing a constitutional monarchy in 1840 that promised equal voting rights regardless of race, gender, or wealth.

The population of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii declined from an unknown number prior to 1778 (commonly estimated to be around 300,000), to around 142,000 in the 1820s based on the first census conducted by American missionaries, 82,203 in the 1850 Hawaiian Kingdom census, 40,622 in the last Hawaiian Kingdom census of 1890, 39,504 in the only census by the Republic of Hawaii in 1896, and 37,656 in the first census conducted by the United States in 1900 after the annexation of Hawaii to the United States in 1898. Since Hawaii has joined the United States the Native Hawaiian population in Hawaii has increased with every census to 289,970 in 2010.

Americans within the kingdom government rewrote the constitution, severely curtailing the power of King "David" Kalākaua, and disenfranchising the rights of most Native Hawaiians and Asian citizens to vote, through excessively high property and income requirements. This gave a sizeable advantage to plantation owners. Queen Liliʻuokalani attempted to restore royal powers in 1893 but was placed under house arrest by businessmen with help from the United States military. Against the Queen's wishes, the Republic of Hawaii was formed for a short time. This government agreed on behalf of Hawaii to join the United States in 1898 as the Territory of Hawaii. In 1959, the islands became the state of Hawaii.


The islands are home to a multitude of endemic species. Since human settlement, first by Polynesians, non native trees, plants, and animals were introduced. These included species such as rats and pigs, that have preyed on native birds and invertebrates that initially evolved in the absence of such predators. The growing population of humans has also led to deforestation, forest degradation, treeless grasslands, and environmental degradation. As a result, many species which depended on forest habitats and food became extinct—with many current species facing extinction. As humans cleared land for farming, monocultural crop production replaced multi-species systems.[ citation needed ]

The arrival of the Europeans had a more significant impact, with the promotion of large-scale single-species export agriculture and livestock grazing. This led to increased clearing of forests, and the development of towns, adding many more species to the list of extinct animals of the Hawaiian Islands. As of 2009, many of the remaining endemic species are considered endangered. [26]

National Monument

On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush issued a public proclamation creating Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Monument encompasses the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters, forming the largest [27] marine wildlife reserve in the world. In August 2010, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added Papahānaumokuākea to its list of World Heritage Sites. [28] [29] [30] On August 26, 2016, President Barack Obama greatly expanded Papahānaumokuākea, quadrupling it from its original size. [31] [32] [33]


The Hawaiian Islands are tropical but experience many different climates, depending on altitude and surroundings. [34] The islands receive most rainfall from the trade winds on their north and east flanks (the windward side) as a result of orographic precipitation. [34] Coastal areas in general and especially the south and west flanks, or leeward sides, tend to be drier. [34]

In general, the lowlands of Hawaiian Islands receive most of their precipitation during the winter months (October to April). [34] Drier conditions generally prevail from May to September. [34] The tropical storms, and occasional hurricanes, tend to occur from July through November. [34]

During the summer months the average temperature is about 84 °F (29 °C), in the winter months it is approximately 79 °F (26 °C). As the temperature is relatively constant over the year the probability of dangerous thunderstorms is approximately low. [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Further reading