The Hawaiian Islands:

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North Shore Eco Tours / 'Aina ~ Nature / The Hawaiian Islands:

Filed Under: 'Aina ~ Nature by admin January 15, 2011, 11:23 am

Hawaiʻi is well known around the world as a tropical paradise of surf, sun, and hula, but how true is that perception?  Is Hawaiʻi really a group of idyllic islands with a temperate climate, constant trade winds, and stunning white sand beaches?  The short answer to that question is yes.  The Hawaiian archipelago boasts tremendous geological and biological diversity as well as breathtaking scenery.  It is unique in so many ways that it has become legendary among visitors and scientists alike.  Hawaiʻi owes its exceptional beauty and ideal weather to its location in the Pacific, the Hawaiian hotspot, and plate tectonics.

Let’s explore the forces responsible for creating some of the most unique islands on the planet.

Location, Location, Location…

The eight main Hawaiian Islands are located between 22º 14’N and 18º 54’N placing them well within the tropical zone.[1] Due to its location near the northern edge of the tropics, Hawaiʻi enjoys predominately warm sunny weather along with cool northern trade winds throughout the year.  Ah, paradise…never too hot nor too cold, but just right.  It’s partly due to Hawaiʻi’s ideal climate that visitors flock to its shores year round.  Even during the rainier winter months, Hawaiʻi still enjoys comfortable warm weather and many sun filled days.  Although Hawaiʻi seems to have won the lottery in terms of location, its stroke of luck can also be credited to a well situated Hawaiian Hotspot.

Hotspots & Hawaiian Volcanoes…

A hotspot is a weak area under the mantle of the earth’s surface which melts and forms undersea volcanoes.  These submarine volcanoes continue to build layer upon layer until they breach the ocean surface and form an island.  The concept is simple enough, however, the hotspot theory alone cannot account for the long chain of Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian archipelago owes its existence to the unique interaction between the hotspot and the Pacific Plate.  According to the theory of plate tectonics, the earth’s surface is divided up into various hardened plates that “float” upon a hot liquid earth core.  These plates move in different directions in relation to each other which explain many of the world’s geographical features such as mountain ranges and fault lines.  The Pacific Plate moves in a northwestern direction at a rate of about 10cm (4 inches) a year.  As it moves it crosses over the stationary hotspot and volcanoes form.  However, since the Pacific Plate is constantly moving northwest, as a volcano grows it is also carried further from the hotspot.

The volcanic island eventually moves so far northwest of the hotspot that the conduit which supplies magma to it becomes over extended and severs.  At this point the volcano is dormant but since the hotspot to the southeast is still active, it creates another submarine volcano and the process continues.  This “conveyer belt” scenario has played out over and over again for millions of years in the Pacific.[2] The result?  A long chain of tropical islands in one of the most remote locations on the planet situated at the perfect climatic zone and ripe with life.

Warmed by constant sunshine, cooled by northern trade winds, and refreshed with wind generated rains, Hawaiʻi naturally supports an amazing array of unique plant life and provides one of the choicest visitor destinations on earth.  The next time you think of Hawaiʻi, look past the ʻukulele and coconut bras; look to the heart of the islands and you will find something truly special.  E mālama pono.


Noah Keola Ryan is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and Hawaiian Studies educator at the University of Hawaiʻi on Oʻahu Island. For more information about Keola’s background, click here.

[1] Also known as the torrid zone, the tropics are limited in latitude by the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere at 23° 26′ 16″ N and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere at 23° 26′ 16″ S.


[2] Of the 8 main Hawaiian Islands, Kaua’i, the northern most, is approximately 5 million years old; while Hawai’i Island, the youngest and closest to the hotspot is only about 1 million years old.



admin says February 19, 2011,11:36 pm

I love this article thanks!




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North Shore Eco Tours will help you gain tremendous insight into the cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi from alaka'i (guides) who are actually Hawaiian educators and/or cultural practitioners.