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State of Hawai’i, USA

Hawai’i has experienced rapid warming, especially since the mid-1970s. Its air temperature trend has diverged from the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) as well as local sea surface temperature trends, perhaps signaling increasing influence of global warming [1].  Drought, although it rarely affects an entire island at one time, may occur when there are either no winter storms or no trade winds.  If there are no winter storms, the normally dry leeward areas are most impacted.  A dry winter, followed by a normally dry summer and another dry winter, can have serious effects. The absence of trade winds affects mostly the windward and upland regions, which receive a smaller proportion of their rain from winter storms [4].  Hawai’i’s climate is likely to continue to become drier as warming continues.  Reduced precipitation in combination with a possible increase in potential evapotranspiration due to increased temperature would result in significant reductions in ground-water recharge and stream discharge, and would severely impact vulnerable high-elevation ecosystems [1]. Hawai’i State has a multi-hazard mitigation plan that addresses climate-related hazard risks, as well as considers some of the impacts from future climate change, such as sea level rise and more frequent extremes.  Most major disaster declarations for Hawa’i are based on climate-related hazards that total billions of dollars in damages [7].  Even the earthquake disaster in 2006 damaged irrigation infrastructure and reservoirs that created extensive drought-related problems during the ENSO event that followed in 2007 [7].  Each of the four counties has its own mitigation plan that address localized risks.  The plans recommend hazard mitigation actions, similar to climate change adaptation strategies, to build resilience [7].

Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaiʻi. (Source: Cheryl Anderson)


The Hawaiian Islands cover 10,932 square miles (28,314 square km) of which 6,423 sq miles (16,635 sq km) is land area and 4,508 sq miles (11,676 sq km) is water, mainly the Pacific Ocean [7]. The Hawaiian archipelago is the world’s longest island chain (1,523 miles or 2,451 kilometers), composed of 132 islands with eight main islands [7], including Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lanaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. All the main islands are inhabited except Kahoʻolawe. Hawaiʻi Island (also known as Big Island) is the largest island with an area of 4,028 sq miles (10,434 sq km). Oʻahu, the most highly populated island, has an area of 598 sq miles (1,548 sq km) [10]. The main islands are separated into four counties: the County of Kaua‘i, including Ni‘ihau; the City and County of Honolulu (the island of O‘ahu); the County of Maui, including Maui, Molokaʻi, and Lanaʻi; and the County of Hawaiʻi (the island of Hawaiʻi) [10]. The highest point in the Hawaiian Islands is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaiʻi, which reaches 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) [10]. The Big Island also contains active volcanoes along the southern edge of the island, which are actually causing the island to slowly get bigger [8].


Hawaiʻi has a tropical climate with near-constant trade winds blowing from the east.  Hawaiʻi has two seasons: the dry season from May to October, and the wet season from October to April. Summer highs are usually in the upper 80s°F (around 31°C) during the day, and mid 70s (around 24 °C) at night.  Winter temperatures during the day are usually in the low to mid 80s, (around 28 °C) and (at low elevation) seldom going below the mid 60s (18 °C) at night [7]. While Hawaiʻi’s climate is equable, the mountainous topography makes it one of the most spatially diverse regions on earth. Hawai‘i has various ecosystems ranging from deserts to tropical rain forest and even frozen alpine tundra, all in close proximity [4]. Snow, not usually associated with tropics, falls at the higher elevations of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island in some winter months [8]. Local climates vary considerably on each island, generally divisible into windward and leeward areas based upon location relative to the higher mountains.  Windward sides face the Northeast Trades and receive much more rainfall; leeward sides are drier and sunnier, with less rain and less cloud cover [8].  Variations in rainfall on the Hawaiian Islands are dramatic.  At one extreme, the annual rainfall on the west (leeward) side of Hawaiʻi Island averages 20 inches. At the other extreme, the annual average along the lower windward slopes of Haleakala on Maui exceeds 300 inches (7,620mm) [2]. Mount Waiʻaleʻale on Kauaʻi, which is notable for rainfall, has the second highest average annual rainfall on Earth, about 460 inches (38 ft. 4 in., or 11.7 m) [8]. Although hurricanes and tsunamis are a rare occurrence in Hawaiʻi, all the main islands have been affected at some point.  Tsunamis have accounted for more lost lives than all other local disasters combined [6].


Hilo side of Hawaii. (Source: Steve Skipper, NRCS)

The estimated population of the state of Hawaiʻi in 2010 is 1,360,301, of which 70% is urban, and 30% is rural [9]. Honolulu County (the island of Oʻahu) is the most populous, with 953,207 inhabitants in 2010. The populations of the other counties in descending order are: Hawaiʻi County, 185,079; Maui County, 154,924; and Kauaʻi County, 67,091. The overall population of the state has slowly increased since 1878, with no long-term periods of decline [10].  In 2010, there were 42,523 members of the Armed Forces and 62,322 military dependents living in the state [10]. Hawaiʻi is demographically unique because it has the highest percentage of Asian Americans and Multiracial Americans, as well as the lowest percentage of White Americans of any state. The main ethnicities in the state are Asian 38.6%, White 24.7%, two or more races 23.6%, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 10%, Hispanic and Latino 8.9%, Black 1.6%, and Other 1.5% (2010). The Asian portion of the population, which is the most populous ethnic group in the state, consists of 14.6% Filipino Americans, 13.6% Japanese Americans, 4.0% Chinese Americans, and 1.8% Korean Americans [8]. The main religious groups are Christian 29%, Buddhist 9%, Jewish 0.8%, Other 10% (Confucian, Daoist, Bahai, Hindu, Islam, Sikh, Shinto, Native Hawaiian religion, etc.), and Unaffiliated 51% [8]. The state of Hawaiʻi has two official languages recognized in its 1978 constitution: English and Hawaiian. Approximately 75% of Hawaiʻi residents speak only English at home. Other less commonly-spoken languages are Tagalog 5%, Japanese 5%, Ilokano 4%, Chinese 2%, Hawaiian 2%, Spanish 2%, Korean 2%, and Samoan 1%. Some locals also speak Hawaiian Pidgin, which is an English variant influenced over the years by Hawaiian and various other immigrant languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Ilokano, and Tagalog [8].

History and Government

The earliest habitation of the Hawaiian Islands supported by archaeological evidence dates to as early as 300 CE, probably by Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas, followed by a second wave of migration from French Polynesia in the 11th century. The first recorded European contact with the islands was in 1778 by British explorer James Cook. Traditional Hawaiian society was stratified into classes ruled by minor chiefs, and daily activities were centered on a land unit known as the ahupuaʻa, which ran from the mountain to the sea. After 1810, all the inhabited islands were conquered by a single ruler who became known as King Kamehameha the Great. He established the House of Kamehameha, a dynasty that ruled the kingdom until 1872. In 1887, Kalākaua was forced to sign the 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the king of much of his authority. There was a property qualification for voting, which disenfranchised most Hawaiians and immigrant laborers, and favored the wealthier white community. Because the 1887 Constitution was signed under threat of violence, it is known as the “Bayonet Constitution”. King Kalākaua, reduced to a figurehead, reigned until his death in 1891. His sister, Liliʻuokalani, succeeded him on the throne. In 1893, Queen Liliʻuokalani announced plans for a new constitution. On January 14, 1893, a group of mostly Euro-American business leaders and residents formed a Committee of Safety to overthrow the Kingdom and seek annexation by the United States. The kingdom was overthrown in 1893, however the islands were not formally annexed by the U.S. until 1898, when the islands became the Territory of Hawaii. In 1900, Hawaii was granted self-governance, but because of the influence of plantation owners and key capitalists known as the “Big Five” who wanted to preserve the labor rules under territorial status, Hawaii residents were not able to successfully vote to become a state until 1959. Hawaii is one of four states that were independent prior to becoming part of the United States, and one of two, along with Texas, that had formal diplomatic recognition internationally. One of the best-known periods in Hawaii history is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the U.S. into World War II. [8]

Waipio Valley, Hawaiʻi. The Waipio Valley is often referred to as the “Valley of the Kings” because it was once the home to many of the rulers of Hawaii. The valley has both historical and cultural importance to the Hawaiian people.

Natural Resources and Economy

Tourism is Hawaiʻi’s leading employer, revenue producer, and growth sector [3], contributing 24.3% of the Gross State Product (GSP) in 1997 [8]. However, agricultural diversification, aquaculture, manganese nodule mining, and film and television production have broadened the state’s economic base [3]. The main agricultural exports are coffee, macadamia nuts, pineapple, livestock, and sugar cane [8]. Military spending also significantly contributes to the state economy; in 2009, 18% of all state spending was by the U.S. military [8]. The public sector has a greater presence in Hawaiʻi’s economy than in any other state, accounting for 21.5% of GSP in 2001, compared to the national average of 12% [3]. Coastal erosion and beach loss are chronic and widespread problems in the Hawaiian Islands. Typical erosion rates in Hawaiʻi are in the range of 15-30 cm/yr or 0.5-1 ft/yr, with some areas reaching annual average erosion rates of up to 5-6 ft /yr [7].  A sustained sea level rise associated with global climate change will add more threat to the coastal built environment and significantly increase loss of beaches and coastal ecosystems [7].  This is a severe threat to tourism, the largest industry in Hawai’i, which is highly beach- and coast-based.

Related Links
Monthly Climate Summary from Weather Forecast Office, Honolulu
Latest Seasonal Rainfall Forecast for Hawaii from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC)
Tropical Pacific Islands Rainfall Outlooks from CPC
Pacific ENSO Application Climate Center Hawaiʻi page
[1] Giambelluca, T. W., H. F. Diaz, and M. S. A. Luke (2008), Secular temperature changes in Hawai‘i, Geophysical Research Letters, 35, L12702, doi:10.1029/ 2008GL034377.
[2] Best Places Hawaii, http://www.bestplaceshawaii.com/tips/weather/, accessed September 13, 2012.
[3] City Data: Hawaii Economy, http://www.city-data.com/states/Hawaii-Economy.html , accessed September 13, 2012.
[4] S.P. Juvik and J.O. Juvik. (Eds.) 1998. Atlas of Hawai‘i (3rd Ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
[5] National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
[6] Pacific Disaster Center, http://www.pdc.org/iweb/tsunami_history.jsp, accessed September 13, 2012.
[7] State of Hawai‘i Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, 2007.
[8] Wikipedia, Hawaii, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaii, accessed September 13, 2012.
[9] USDA Economic Research Service, Hawaiʻi State Fact Sheets, http://www.ers.usda.gov/stateFacts/HI.htm, accessed September 13, 2012.
[10] State of Hawaiʻi Data Book 2011, http://hawaii.gov/dbedt/info/economic/databook/db2011/, accessed September 13, 2012.
State of Hawai`i

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