Polynesia (from Greek πολύς polýs ‘much’ and νῆσοι nēsoi ‘islands’) is both a large Pacific island region and the easternmost of the cultural areas of Oceania. With an area of almost 50 million km², it is the largest island region in Oceania. Around six million people live on the land area of around 294,000 km², of which New Zealand has the largest share with around 91%.
The name Polynesia was first used in 1756 by the French scholar Charles de Brosses, who referred to all the islands in the Pacific Ocean with this name. The French Rear Admiral Jules Dumont d’Urville proposed in a lecture to the Geographical Society of Paris in 1831 that the term be restricted and used the names Micronesia (Greek small islands) and Melanesia (Greek black islands) for parts of the Pacific island kingdom. He justified this with the ethnic conditions, which the designation Polynesia would only allow for parts of the Pacific settlement area. This division of Oceania into three different regions has remained anchored in common parlance to this day. The Polynesian languages play an important role in this classification.
Polynesia with its many islands and archipelagos stretches from the Hawai’i Islands (USA) in the north to New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island (Chile) in the southeast. In the west runs the border between the (Micronesian) Gilbert Islands and Tuvalu. This sea area is also called the “ Polynesian triangle””. It covers a sea area of around 50 million km². The Polynesian Islands have a total land area of around 294,000 km², with New Zealand alone being 270,534 km². The distances between the various islands and archipelagos are often several thousand kilometers. The vastness of the ocean is the defining element of Polynesian geography.
With the exception of New Zealand, which was part of Antarctica many millions of years ago, the islands of Polynesia are of volcanic origin, with some volcanoes still active. In the places where the volcanoes reached almost to the surface of the sea since the last ice age, when the sea level was about 100 m lower, coral reefs could arise and hundreds of small and tiny coral islands varying in size formed with rising sea level, which are usually arranged in the form of atolls. Such coral islands often rise only a few meters above sea level.
The habitability of some of these atolls is now endangered by the rapid rise in sea levels caused by the current warming of the world climate. Particularly during storm surges, not inconsiderable amounts of salty sea water penetrate the interior of the country and contaminate the drinking water required for the cultivation of crops. It is to be expected that some of these atolls will have to be abandoned in the foreseeable future, as they are no longer suitable for human settlement.
The medium-sized islands and the few large islands are also located on volcanic elevations in the approximately 4000 m deep Pacific Ocean. Some volcanic craters have been raised by geological processes, so that the limestone that was once formed in the shallow sea is now above the surface of the sea, creating a limestone island. A risk to such islands from rising sea levels is currently not recognizable.
Countries in Polynesia
- New Zealand