The Hawaiian Islands are of volcanic origin and are edged with coral reefs. Hawaii is the largest and geologically the youngest island of the group, and Oahu, where the capital, Honolulu, is located, is the most populous and economically important. The other principal islands are Kahoolawe, Kauai, Lanai, Maui, Molokai, and Niihau. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, consisting of uninhabited islets and excluding Midway, stretch more than 1,100 mi (1,800 km) from Nihoa to Kure. Most of islets are encompassed in the Hawaiian Island National Wildlife Refuge; the surrounding waters and coral reefs are in the vast 84-million-acre (34-million-hectare) Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Reserve. Palmyra atoll and Kingman Reef, which were within the boundaries of Hawaii when it was a U.S. territory, were excluded when statehood was achieved.
The only U.S. state in the tropics, Hawaii is sometimes called "the paradise of the Pacific" because of its spectacular beauty: abundant sunshine; expanses of lush green plants and gaily colored flowers; palm-fringed, coral beaches with rolling white surf; and cloud-covered volcanic peaks rising to majestic heights. Some of the world's largest active and inactive volcanoes are found on Hawaii and Maui; eruptions of the active volcanoes have provided spectacular displays, but their lava flows have occasionally caused great property damage. Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are volcanic mountains on Hawaii island; Haleakala volcano is on Maui in Haleakala National Park.
Vegetation is generally luxuriant throughout the islands, with giant fern forests in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kahoolawe, however, is arid, and Niihau and Molokai have very dry seasons. Although many species of birds and domestic animals have been introduced on the islands, there are few wild animals other than boars and goats, and there are no snakes. The coastal waters abound with fish.
More ethnic and cultural groups are represented in Hawaii than in any other state. Chinese laborers, who came to work in the sugar industry, were the first of the large groups of immigrants to arrive (starting in 1852), and Filipinos and Koreans were the last (after 1900). Other immigrant groups—including Portuguese, Germans, Japanese, and Puerto Ricans—came in the latter part of the 19th cent. Intermarriage with other races has brought a further decrease in the number of pure-blooded Hawaiians, who comprise a very small percentage of the population.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.