Hawaii - Inter-Island Diversity
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.
The island of Hawaii is the largest island of the State and has the highest altitude at 13,796 feet. Maui is about 10,000 feet above sea level in its eastern part and about 5,800 feet above sea level in its western part; a broad lowland area separates the two parts. Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight major islands and is only about 1,500 feet above sea level in its eastern, highest part. Lanai is about 3,400 feet above sea level in its highest part, but much of the island is less than 1,000 feet above sea level. Molokai is mountainous in its eastern half, where it rises to about 5,000 feet above sea level, but most of the island is less than 1,000 feet above sea level.
Oahu has a mountainous ridge along its eastern side and another mountainous area along the western side, where it rises to about 4,000 feet above sea level; however, most of Oahu is less than 1,000 feet above sea level. Kauai is about 5,200 feet above sea level in its central part, but from the base of the mountains shoreward, large areas of the island are less than 1,000 feet above sea level in the southern, eastern, and northern parts. Niihau is mostly less than 1,000 feet above sea level, except for a narrow ridge about 1,300 feet above sea level along its northeastern side. The topography of each island has a profound effect on development and climate.
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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