Pacific Islands

November 25, 2012 9:41 pm

Imagine a region the size of the United States. Now imagine that most of it is underwater. Picture tiny dots of land spread far and wide across an enormous patch of blue.
What you’re imagining really exists. Millions of people live there. This region is called the Pacific Islands. It also goes by the name of Oceania.
The Pacific Islands are more than 25,000 islands in the western and central Pacific Ocean. The islands lie across millions of square miles of ocean.
Yet, if you added the land of all the islands together, you would have less land than the state of Alaska. More than 90 percent of this land is found in the islands of Hawaii, New Guinea, and New Zealand.
The governments of the Pacific Islands vary greatly. They include 13 independent nations that govern themselves. These are the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Samoa.
Other islands are part of other nations. Hawaii is a state of the United States. Easter Island is part of Chile.
Still other islands are dependent on a larger country. The Cook Islands, for example, is self-governing, but it looks to the country of New Zealand to provide defense.
Geographers often divide the Pacific Islands into three regions. An arc of islands off the northern and eastern coast of Australia is called Melanesia. North of Melanesia and east of Asia are the many tiny islands making up Micronesia.
Larger than those two regions combined is Polynesia. The Polynesian islands are in a big triangle. The points of the triangle are New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii.
The Pacific Islands cover a huge area, and they are all different. But most islands are one of two types: high islands and low islands.
High islands are the tops of undersea mountains. Many of these are volcanoes. Some high mountains even have snow on top of their peaks in winter, such as Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii. They may have rivers that flow to the sea.
Some low islands form when volcanic islands erode away to just above sea level. Others are atolls. Atolls form on underwater mountains. They are built up by underwater coral reefs.
Atolls are usually ring-shaped and rise less than 20 feet (6 meters) above sea level. The water in the middle of the atoll is called a lagoon. Low islands have no mountains or rivers.
The Pacific Islands are all in or near the tropics. So the weather is warm and often wet. Temperatures average 80° Fahrenheit (27° Celsius) most of the year. On high mountains, the temperatures are cooler.
Most islands have winds that change direction once a year. These winds are called monsoons. The winds carry moist air part of the year and dry air the other part.
On high islands, monsoons create a wet and a dry season. This is because the mountains trap the moist air, causing rain. Low islands are usually dry because there are no mountains to catch the air.
Tropical storms hit the islands yearly. Sometimes the storms bring heavy wind and rains. The storms can cause severe damage.
Since most of the islands are far from other land, few land animals live on them. Fish, birds, and insects are the main natural residents. But the larger islands near Australia have many more types of animal species.
One of the most unusual land animals native to the Pacific Islands is the coconut crab. This large crab climbs coconut palms to get coconuts. It uses powerful pincers to break open coconuts to eat.
The waters around the islands are rich with life. There you can find turtles, lobsters, giant clams, sharks, octopuses, and squid, and many kinds of fish.
The people of the islands speak a huge number of languages, about 1,200 in all! New Guinea alone is home to more than 700 languages. There, dense jungles and high mountains have isolated communities for long periods of time. This has allowed different languages to develop.
Today, many islands use English or French as the official language. But most native islanders speak a local language, too.
The people of the Pacific Islands can be as different as the languages they speak. But many share a common lifestyle. Most islanders live in rural areas. They farm small plots of land and harvest seafood. Bread is made from the soft center of the sago palm. Coconuts are an important food source. Clothing is usually very light, for comfort in the warm weather.
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