The Land and Geography of the Hawaiian Islands

Ancient Hawaiians worshipped Madame Pele, the fire goddess whose name translates equally well as Volcano, Fire Pit, or Eruption of Lava. When she was angry, she complained by spitting fire, which cooled and formed land. And so the Hawaiian islands were born.

The Land

The islands’ volcanic origins have a basis in science as well as myth. From a stationary hotspot in the earth’s mantle, the islands of Hawaii are created as molten lava rises though weak points in the earth’s crust. On the Big Island, Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain, reaches to 13,796 feet above sea level, or 31,000 feet tall when measured from the ocean floor, almost 3,000 feet taller than Mount Everest. And it’s still growing.

Once islands move past the hot spot on the Pacific Plate, volcanic activity ceases, and they begin a slow process of erosion, moving northwest across the vast Pacific Ocean. Over thousands of years, the mountains erode to shoals and atolls (barrier reefs just below the ocean surface), returning to their underwater origins. The Lo‘ihi Seamount, located southeast of the Big Island, is likely to be the next Hawaiian island. Emerging from the flank of Mauna Loa, its summits are about 50 miles apart. Lo‘ihi is roughly 3,000 feet below sea level and isn’t expected to become a full-fledged island for at least 10,000 years or longer, depending on volcanic activity.

Lava comes in two distinct types, for which the Hawaiian names have become universal geological terms: ‘a‘a and pahoehoe. They’re easily distinguished by appearance, but chemically they’re the same. ‘A‘a is extremely sharp, rough, and spiny. Conversely, pahoehoe is billowy, ropelike lava that can mold into fantastic shapes. Examples of both are visible across the islands.


About 2,400 miles from the nearest continental shore, Hawaii is most isolated group of islands on the planet. There are eight main Hawaiian Islands: Ni‘ihau (the Forbidden Island), Kaua‘i (the Garden Isle), O‘ahu (the Gathering Place), Moloka‘i (the Friendly Isle), Lana‘i (the Pineapple Isle), Kaho‘olawe (the Target Isle), Maui (the Valley Isle) and Hawai‘i (better known as the Big Island). The Hawaiian archipelago consists of 132 islands, islets, and atolls, stretching roughly 1,500 miles from northernmost Kure Atoll to the still-growing Big Island of Hawai‘i at the southeastern end of the chain. The eight main islands have a total area of 10,931 square miles. The Big Island is the largest island, accounting for about 63 percent of the state’s total landmass; the other islands could fit within it two times over. Next largest is Maui, followed by O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, and Lana‘i. There are approximately 750 miles of coastline in the state. The main Hawaiian Islands are located in the Tropic of Cancer.

Hawaii’s landscape is extremely diverse, offering everything from dry arid desert to snowcapped mountains. There are rivers, streams and waterfalls, vertical cliffs, extinct tuff cone volcanoes, tranquil bays and high-elevation plateaus. Because of their dramatic rise out of ocean depths, the islands include examples of 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones.

Kevin Whitton

About the Author

Avid surfer and nature-lover Kevin Whitton has traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Indonesia, and Australia. He’s volunteered as a trail guide in a private Costa Rican rain forest preserve and as a snowmobile guide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. When confronted with the choice between living in the mountains and visiting the beach, or living at the beach and visiting the mountains, Kevin refused to choose, deciding to call O’ahu home instead. Now when he waits for a wave at one of his favorite windward or North Shore surf breaks, he can gaze at the verdant mountains and revel in the best of both worlds.

Kevin is the author of the award-winning Green Hawai’i: A Guide to a Sustainable and Energy Efficient Home and A Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Botanical Gardens. He writes for Hawai’i’s most notable publications, is active in the island’s surf media, and is the co-founder and editor of GREEN: Hawai’i’s Sustainable Living Magazine.

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