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Hawaii's natural history: beneath the Pacific Ocean is a section of Earth's crust that for millions of years has moved, a few inches per year, to the northeast. Below this moving "Pacific Plate" is a stationary jet of molten rock (called the Hawaiian Hot Spot) which has blown through the Earth's crust to create a series of undersea volcanoes.
The tallest of these mountains - rising as high as six miles from the ocean floor - are better known as the Hawaiian Islands.
The major islands, from smallest to largest, are Kahoolawe (long used as a bombing range by the U.S. military) the privately-owned Niihau, Lanai, Molokai, the Garden Island of Kauai, Oahu (home of Honolulu, the state capital), Maui, and Hawaii, often called the Big Island.
The Hawaiian islands support a vast network of plant and animal life. Much of their volcanic rock has decomposed into soil, especially the older rock of Kauai and Niihau. Originally a small variety of seeds arrived by sea and in the bellies of birds. From these few early arrivals, many new varieties of plant and bird life evolved. New groups of humans brought new plants and animals to the islands - some harmonious, others harmful to the local ecology.
Today, many of Hawaii's unique life forms are threatened by foreign species and modern human practices.
The Original Hawaiians
Some 1800 years ago, Polynesian explorers arrived in double-hulled sailing canoes. Finding these ideal islands, they went back to their homeland to prepare for relocation. Eventually they returned with everything essential for a new life, including men, women, chickens, taro and breadfruit plants. Their new colonies were well-established within a few hundred years.
Besides having keen navigational skills, the new Hawaiians were brilliant land managers. Their system of land division was centered around the ahupuaa, a region usually defined by a valley and extending from the mountains to the sea.
These first Hawaiians would line a valley floor with stone terraces, then flood the terraces to plant taro and raise freshwater fish. Other plants and trees were grown along the valley walls to supply food, clothing (made from the soft bark of tapa trees), and canoes of koa hardwood. The Hawaiians also harvested a variety of plants and animals from the sea. Each valley became a thriving cultural center with its own local character - an ahupuaa. These ahupuaa were ruled by chiefs, who were ruled by kings on each island.
Later a group of Tahitians arrived, realigning the islands' social order with strict new religious and cultural practices.
But the most sweeping changes came when the English explorer James Cook sailed his crew into Kauai's Waimea Bay in the late 1700s. His accurate maps soon brought French and American ships. Hawaii became an important whaling center, and offered a new agricultural opportunity for the light-skinned visitors. By the early 19th century, European-style plantations of pineapple, coffee and sugarcane stretched across the countryside. Many Hawaiian laborers worked for the white plantation owners. Meanwhile British, French and Americans used a wide range of questionable practices to take possession of Hawaiian land and other resources.
Many Hawaiians lost their lives to European diseases - over 80 percent were wiped out in a 100-year period. Needing more workers, plantation owners brought immigrants from China, Portugal, Norway, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Hawaii's immigrants, needing a common language, developed a new variation of English. Hawaiian pidgin, still used widely, often conveys complete thoughts in very few words, and sometimes with hilarious humor.
Through a long series of business deals, political tricks and displays of force, the white foreigners completed their takeover by the end of the 19th century. Hawaiian royalty had lost all political power. Hawaii became America's 50th state in 1959.
Hawaii's Present & Future
In spite of recent history's hardships, Hawaii's residents are full of hope. New generations of the many cultures have grown up together, intermarried, and learned to get along and truly appreciate one another. In Hawaii every ethnic group is a minority, one more reason why we listen to each other. Hawaii's sugar industry is almost gone, and residents are starting new industries in such areas as high technology, organic agriculture and hardwood forestry. Some envision the islands as a health and wellness center or nature preserve for visitors worldwide.
More and more residents are coming to realize that nature is Hawaii's most valuable resource, and preserving its delicate balance is everybody's business. Modern life in Hawaii combines the convenience (and traffic!) of American life with a colorful tapestry of cultures and styles, against a background of stunning natural beauty.
All the islands follow similar seasonal, weather and surf patterns. Temperatures are medium-warm all year, although cooler during the winter months ("downright cold" to the people who live here), and a little hot in the summertime. Tradewinds blow from east to west, strongest in the summer months. Clouds form on the windward (east) side, dropping rain as they ascend to the mountains and dissipate, leaving the leeward (west) side with a dry desert climate.
The year's biggest surf comes to the North Shore in wintertime. Summer surf is usually best on the South Shore. It's just the opposite for swimming, snorkeling and diving: South Shore waters are calm in winter, North Shore in summer. Kauai's East and West Sides usually have surf year-round. "Mauka" means toward the mountains, where weather is generally cooler and cloudier. You're more likely to find sunshine "makai", or towards the beach. (In the islands, the words mauka and makai are especially useful when giving or receiving directions).