It comes as no surprise that Iceland and Hawaii rarely come up in the same conversation, but perhaps it's time that changed. After all, Europe’s northernmost island nation and America’s southernmost island state share more in common than one might imagine.
Text, narration and photos by Jon Letman.
Consider this: both Iceland and Hawaii are comprised of remote islands which are occasionally rocked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Both are home to incredible wilderness, sharing an abundance of plunging waterfalls, sheer cliffs, sandy beaches, jagged black lava coastlines, towering mountains, and empty stretches of grassland and desert.
Iceland and Hawaii share their geographic isolation and abundance of fish and marine life like whales, dolphins and seals. Both are home to a wealth of birds such as shearwaters, plovers, petrels, ducks, and owls. Iceland has puffins and razorbills while Hawaii has red-footed boobies and honeycreepers.
Europe’s westernmost point, the cliffs at Látrabjarg, are famous for bird-watching while Hawaii’s main island’s northernmost point, the cliffs at Kilauea point are a seabird sanctuary teaming with albatross, frigatebirds, and tropicbirds.
While Hawaii and Iceland are both popular travel destinations, particularly for those who enjoy outdoor activities (fishing, hiking, swimming, paddling, golf, and surfing), they are both somewhat misunderstood.
Iceland is typically not as cold as foreigners imagine, nor is Hawaii as hot. The climates of each are moderated by global wind currents—the north Atlantic current in the case of Iceland, and trade winds in Hawaii.
Although Hawaii lacks the glaciers of Iceland, the temperature on Mauna Kea volcano (4,205 meters above the sea floor) on the island of Hawaii (the “Big Island”) can drop below freezing and is covered in snow during the winter, making for good snowboarding. Glacial ice remained on the summit of Mauna Kea as recently as 10,000 years ago.
The populations of Iceland and Hawaii are both relatively small when compared with other countries and states respectively. Iceland’s 320,000 people, like Hawaii’s 1.3 million, live primarily in coastal towns. Six out of ten Icelander’s reside in the capital while a slightly higher percentage of Hawaii’s residents live in the city and county of Honolulu (on Oahu island).
The earliest Icelanders, arrived by boat in the 9th century while the first Hawaiians paddled from the Marquesas islands north to Hawaii only several centuries earlier. In both cases, those first settlers must have been excellent navigators and very tough to survive the difficult sea voyage and the inhospitable conditions they found upon arrival.
Despite Hawaii’s reputation as a “paradise” where tropical fruit just drips from the trees, 90 percent of the plants growing in Hawaii today are not native. Those first kanaka maoli (the Hawaiian name for native Hawaiians) brought their own plants with them. Taro, breadfruit, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and sugar cane—some 30 plants in all, supplemented the seaweed, fish and what little else they could glean from the islands.
Of course Iceland and Hawaii are very different in many ways too. Icelanders trace their roots to Celtic and Scandinavian settlers and remain largely homogenous compared with multi-ethnic Hawaii where saying you are a typical background might be “part Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese-Filipino-Dutch-German.”
In fact, today Native Hawaiian people are vastly outnumbered by the descendents of immigrants of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino Puerto Rican, German, Scottish and other nationalities who came to work in Hawaii’s sugar industry between 1835 and the early 20th century.
One thing that does link Icelanders today with the people of Hawaii is the common challenge of how to best advance into the 21st century. Both places are heavily reliant and imported items (Hawaii imports up to 90 percent of its food from the US mainland) and affordable fossil fuels to transport people and goods from their respective continents.
While Iceland is rich in geothermal energy and aluminum, Hawaii is a natural candidate to harness solar and wind energy, and both may pursue wave energy in the future. It has been said that tiny, distant Hawaii, still far from being self-sufficient, has vulnerabilities second to none, but its potential too, is second to none. Perhaps this too is true for Iceland.
Jon Letman is a freelance writer on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. www.jonletman.net
This multimedia slideshow was originally published on April 13, 2009.