I’ve been getting a fair amount of hits with search terms like "smallest island in Hawaii" and "smallest population in Hawaii." This probably means a new geo-contest has started recently or a homework assignment for a standardized curriculum just came due. The answer is more interesting than I imagined, and once again it comes down to "it depends."
First, let’s dispense with the easier question which involves the smallest Hawaiian island by size. There are more than a hundred islands, islets, outcrops, reefs or atolls depending on how one counts them — one commonly referenced value is 137 although I have not been able to source it. These features stretch 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) along the backbone forming the Hawaiian archipelago.
Some are intermittent. They rise above and fall beneath the waves as different weather conditions prevail. Which islands is the smallest? It can change at anytime. No single answer can claim the title permanently.
Now, let’s move on to the question of smallest population. Put aside the numerous uninhabited islands and focus on the remaining few with permanent populations.
The Conventional Answer
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This is a pretty standard view of Hawaii and most maps are typically cropped in a similar manner. It’s common to see the eight major islands portrayed in such an array all by themselves: Hawaii (the Big Island); Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai and Niihau. All but Kahoolawe retain permanent populations. Of the remainder, Niihau has the fewest inhabitants with about 160 permanent residents. That’s pretty small and indeed many sources list Niihau as having the smallest population of the Hawaiian Islands but that’s only correct in a narrow sense.
Niihau is sometimes called the "Forbidden Isle." The entire island has been privately owned by the Robinson family since 1864. Nearly every permanent inhabitant is a native Hawaiian. Niihau is also the only island where the Hawaiian language is spoken more prevalently than English. Tourism is extremely limited and only a few visitors can set foot here each day. I considered visiting Niihau a number of years ago but I elected to take a hike along Kauai’s renowned Na Pali Coast instead. That was a tough call and it’s easy for me to second-guess the choice in retrospect, but I wish I could have done both.
A More Precise Answer
SOURCE: United States Geological Survey – Hawaii Volcano Observatory. Image in the public domain.
Hawaii is more than the eight major southeastern, windward islands normally considered by casual observers. A lot more. There’s a whole slew of islands trailing far across the Pacific Ocean to form the northwestern, leeward islands including: Nihoa; Necker; French Frigate Shoals; Gardner; Laysan; Lisianski; Pearl and Hermes Reef; Midway; and Kure.
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Midway Atoll could be a contender. Midway Atoll’s Sand Island once housed 3,500 inhabitants during its military heyday. Then it was downgraded from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility in 1978, and was subsequently decommissioned in 1993 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process.
Responsibility shifted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the population stood at 40 people in 2004, with none of them indigenous. That’s pretty small but the claim is clouded. Midway is the only part of the Hawaiian archipelago that is not part of the State of Hawaii (it is technically an "unincorporated unorganized territory" of the United States). We can do better.
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Kure Atoll is the end of the line, the final northwestern speck of dry land to be found anywhere along the Hawaiian chain. The United States Coast Guard operated a Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) station here [between 1961 and 1993. This was a radio navigation system that has since declined in popularity due to GPS technology. Now Kure is basically uninhabited with the exception of occasional visits from amateur radio expeditions. People who follow this hobby consider transmissions from Kure to be exceedingly rare and desirable. However this is a transient occupation so the current permanent population would have to be considered zero.
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French Frigate Shoals is the likely winner of the small population contest. The Navy built an Air Station here on Tern Island in the wake of World War II’s Battle of Midway. It served as a refueling stop and an emergency landing strip for planes traversing between the main Hawaiian Islands and Midway Atoll. In fact and judging by the satellite photo, Tern Island isn’t much more than the runway itself, just 26 acres.
The atoll is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and serves as the home of a Fish and Wildlife Service field station. The station is staffed by two permanent employees and a handful of rotating volunteers.
Which Hawaiian Island has the smallest permanent population? Until something changes I think the answer would be Tern Island of the French Frigate Shoals with a population of two.