The Beauty and Brevity of the Hawaiian Islands

(First published July 31, 2009)

We’ve spent some wonderful time in Hawaii again this year, visiting friends on Oahu, enjoying the breathtaking landscape of Kauai, and attending Ben Verdery’s annual masterclass on Maui. We had the pleasure of performing in three concerts, and premiered the new piece Thomas Donahue wrote for us, Scientiphilicity. It has been wonderful once again to have had the opportunity to study and perform in this beautiful setting. I’ve posted some photos of the islands to my gallery page.

I’ve been struck this year once again by the physical beauty of the islands, but also, as I’ve read about their geologic history, by just how rare and special this place is. The islands arose from the movement of tectonic plates, resulting in the creation of huge volcanic mountains, some of which rise over 30,000 feet from the ocean floor. The combination of the extreme geographic isolation of the islands — over 2,400 miles from the nearest land mass — and the persistent trade winds has created the remarkable climate that shaped — and continues to shape — the landscape. The winds bring moist ocean air from the east; as the air encounters the volcanic mountains and travels upward, it cools and brings rain. This process occurs continually, so that regions at high elevations receive abundant rainfall. Mt. Wai’ale’ale on Kauai, for example, is one of the rainiest spots on earth, with over 400 inches of rain annually. As the air continues to the west side of each island, it is depleted of moisture, resulting in dry conditions on the leeward side.

The rain results in significant erosion, which is one of the forces that has created the magnificant terrain on Kauai and the other islands. Eventually, erosion and other physical, chemical and biological forces will take their toll, and each island will sink below the surface of the ocean. The oldest of the main islands, Kauai, is only 5 million years old, but in another 2–3 million years it will be reduced to a much smaller island, similar to the small, uninhabited islands that extend to the northwest along the Hawaiian Archipelago.

The youngest of the islands, the Big Island of Hawaii, is less than half a million years old, and is still forming from active lava flow. Maui is only 1.3 million years old, but it, too, in a few million years, will be gone. To put that in some perspective, consider that the earliest humans — not Homo sapiens, but closely related hominids — already existed when Maui was forming. Or imagine the history of the earth compressed into one day: Maui would have existed for only the last 30 seconds of that day, and in another few minutes, would be gone.

But as older islands die, new ones are born, each unique, each beautiful in its own particular way. We as humans are fortunate to exist in this period of geologic history when we can enjoy this truly incredible place.


The geologic information above is from Kauai’s Geologic History by Chuck Blay and Robert Siemers, published in 2004 by TEOK Investigations.

John Olson