The Pacific Region and Antarctica


  1. Overview
  2. Europe Transplanted
  3. Regions
  4. Natural Environments
  5. Antarctica
  6. References
  7. Review Questions


The Pacific islands region includes the eastern part of New Guinea to tiny islands with a few hundred people.  The islands have all been colonies of core lands.  Melanesia consists of islands stretching along the northern perimeter of Australia, from New Guinea eastward to Fiji.    Micronesia includes the islands just north of Melanesia from Guam and the Marianas on the west to Kiribati on the east. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 271)  Polynesia is the largest in size of the Pacific subregions stretching in a huge triangle from Midway and Hawaii on the North to New Zealand on the south, and eastward as far as Pitcairn. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 272)  South of the Pacific realm is Antarctica, which occupies 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface.  The Pacific realm and Antarctica together “constitute 40 percent of the Earth’s surface containing one one-thousandths of the world’s population.” (DeBlij, 2000, p. 562) 

The longest surviving inhabitants of Oceania are Australia’s Aborigines.  “The ancestors of the Aborigines migrated from Southeast Asia as early as 60,000 years ago, over the Sundaland landmass that was exposed during the ice ages.” (Pulsipher, 2000, p. 534)  About the same time the Aborigines were settling in Australia, related groups were settling in nearby areas.  This group of people were the Melanesians.  They survived mostly  by hunting, gathering, and fishing.

About 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, linguistically related groups called Austronesians continued settling the Pacific, migrating out of what is now southern China.  The Austronesians were known for their ability to survive at sea and navigating.  (Pulsipher, 2000, p. 534)

The population of the islands is approximately 10 million people.  Since their colonization, many of the islands have gained their independence; however, the Pacific countries often had to reorient their economies to more local and Asian markets and to greater productive efficiency.



mid- 2000



Per Capita,

1998 (US$)

Births Per 1,000 Pop.

Natural Increase (annual, %)

Fed. States of Micronesia


$1, 800








French Polynesia















Marshall Islands










New Caledonia





New Zealand










Papua- New Guinea





Solomon Islands










The southwestern group has a total population of approximately 5.5 million people, 4.8 million of whom live in Papua New Guinea, 800,000 on Fiji, 400,000 on the Solomon Islands, and 200,000 on Vanatu.  The total population of the smaller northwestern islands is under half a million, while that of the widespread islands in the Central South Pacific is around 2 million. (Population Reference Bureau, 2000)  Population growth on many islands continues, as the fertility rate is high.  Many islands are on the verge of overpopulation because its land and resources cannot support its people on a subsistence basis.  There are very few major cities in the South Pacific.  Rather, these countries and islands tend to be linked to cities in New Zealand and Australia or to the Hawaiian Islands for access to world air routes. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 521)

Before colonization the island communities had integrated economies among themselves.  After colonization several islands entered into the world economy with sales of coconut palm products such as copra.  Copra is “the dried white meat that lines the inside of the coconut shell and provides an oil used in soaps and candles.” (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 522)  Island economies developed by the commercialization of the established interisland trade.  Manufactured goods are imported from Europe and the United States.  Most islands are subsidized by colonial countries and remain poor due to limited resources.  Aside from Papua New Guinea (copper and gold), New Caledonia (nickel), and Nauru (phosphate), few islands have natural resources except for a warm climate and the surrounding ocean. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 522)

Tourism had had a varied history in the Pacific islands, but it has been one of the ways for the people of the region to increase their quality of life.  Tourism is important and/or growing in Fiji, Guam, the Marshall and Northern Islands, Tonga, Hawaii, and a few other islands.  “Tourism can destroy the last remnants of traditional culture and often pays low wages to local people.  Yet, it is often better industry to work in than third world shirt factories.” (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 23)   

Europe Transplanted

The Pacific region have had varied histories of colonization.  The distance from Western Europe delayed colonization of the Pacific until the 19th century.  The late 18th century surveys by Captain James Cook of the British navy informed the Europeans what was there.  Guam and the Marianas were Spanish colonies until they were taken over as United States protectorates in the 20th century.  The Germans were active until they lost all the land to the United States in World War I.  The French colonized New Caledonia and the islands around Tahiti.  Britain was the main colonizer; trading links and military bases that were instigated during the colonial days remain important. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 502)  

Most of the Pacific islands gained independence in the 1970s but not all of them gained their independence at that time.  Although independence appeared desirable to many of the islands, economic difficulties, internal tensions and dependence on continuing economic aid and protection continued to link them to the United States, France, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 503)

The futures of the Pacific countries are contingent upon what occurs within Eastern Asia.  The islands are largely dependent on internal resources but need support from other countries.  The resources that the islands possess need to be managed so that foreign powers do not intercede and do not compensate the local people on the islands.  The South Pacific Forum needs to address such issues and discuss all other issues of exploitation by other countries. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 525)  


Native groups before European colonization included a variety of racial and ethnic groups.  There are 3 groupings of the Pacific population: Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian.  There is another type of grouping as well that cuts across racial and ethnic divisions that recognizes modern political arrangements. (Clawson, 2001, p. 273)   

The Melanesians, referred to as the “dark-skin people.”  These islands are the most populated, including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and New Caledonia.  The human makeup of the people in this area is complex, ethnically and culturally.  There are hundreds of languages spoken.  There are over 120 languages in the Solomon Islands alone. (DeBlij, 2000, p. 559) 

Polynesia lies east of Micronesia and Melanesia and is very consistent in culture from one island to the next (in the way of vocabulary, technology, housing and art).  The Polynesians tend to have lighter skin and wavier hair than the Melanesians.  Polynesia is the largest of the 3 in terms of ocean area but poorest in economic development.  The islands in this area include Tuvalu, Tonga, Niue, Cook Islands, Pitcairn, French Polynesia, and several other islands. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 521)  The numerous islands range from being volcanic mountains to low coral atolls.  Coral atolls are “low-lying islands formed of coral reefs, which are made up of the skeletons of tiny living creatures called coral polyps.” (Pulsipher, 2000, p. 519)

Hawaii is the 50th U.S. state and consists of “a string of mountainous volcanic islands stretched along the upper perimeter of Polynesia, on the northern border of the tropics.” (Clawson, 2001, p. 275)  Hawaii does not really culturally belong with Polynesia anymore as many Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, white North American, and other immigrants have settled on the islands.  Approximately 2/3 of the Hawaiian population are concentrated in Honolulu, the largest city of the Pacific realm.  Honolulu is dependent on trade with the U.S. mainland and Asia for food and industrial goods.  Hawaii’s physical isolation and small population are the largest obstacles for developing a high-technology industrial sector.  Hawaii is widely known as a place for tourism.  “Travel and tourism is the largest industry in Hawaii and produces 24.3 percent of the gross state product.” (Pulsipher, 2000, p. 535)  The number of tourists going to Hawaii has increased although the point of origin is shifting from North Amreica to Asia.  Maintaining tourism at current levels is a challenge, as other attractive sites lure tourists.  In the 1990s the Asian economy experienced a slump, which affected Hawaii’s economy drastically. (Pulsipher, 2000, p. 535)  Meanwhile, the U.S. had a booming economy in the 1990s, but Hawaii did not reap any benefits.  The majority of people in Hawaii live pretty well in comparison to the other Pacific islands groups. (Clawson, 2001, p. 275) 

Finally, Micronesia is the last of the Pacific region.  This region also approximately coincides with the northern group and lies north of Melanesia and east of the Philippines.  The islands in this area include Guam, North Marianas, Marshall Island, Federation States of Micronesia, among others.  There are more than 2,000 islands in this region; the islands composed of coral (low islands) outnumber the volcanic islands (high islands). (DeBlij, 2000, p. 561)

The U.S. territory of Guam has no hope of independence any time soon.  Guam is comprised of 210 square miles and is Micronesia’s largest island.  Most people survive by fishing and farming, and the people rely on foreign aid.  The bulk of income is provided by U.S. military installations, tourism, and the Republic of Nauru. (DeBlij, 2000, p. 560)   

Natural Environments

Most of the Pacific islands are in the tropical belt.  The climatic environments of the Pacific are mostly dominated by the oceanic influences that supply the hydrologic cycle and bring moderate temperature extremes.  The annual rainfall totals are greater toward the western edges of the ocean.  The coral atolls are low-lying and the lack of hills to attract rain often leaves them arid with small and uncertain rainfall. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 504) 

The larger islands are forested with species closer to those of Indonesia and Eastern Asia than those of Australia.  Many palm trees can be found on these islands.  Few islands have many animals, although there is a diversity of bird species.  The surrounding waters of the Pacific contain a wealth of tropical fish varieties but are too easily overfished. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 506)  

The Pacific Islands along the plate collision zone have some mineral resources.  An offshore island of Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s largest reserves that was intensively mined until terrorist activities stopped it.  New Caledonia is the world’s third producer of nickel ore. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 508) 

People living in the Pacific have a great deal to contend with depending on which part of the region they live: earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, floods, and droughts.  The perception of this region by outsiders is that it is a pleasant and untouched part of the world.  This perception is proven false by the dumping of oil and other materials by ocean transport.  Some of the islands are uninhabitable by mining copper, nickel, or phosphate or because of nuclear testing.  Low lying islands face potential environmental disaster if global warming continues and leads to rising ocean level, as their dwelling will go under water. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 509)


Antarctica covers ten percent of the Earth’s land surface, but it is not settled.  Groups of scientists visit the island to monitor global climate change and the development of the ozone hole.  The natural resources are not exploited and international agreements have been established so that does not happen. 

Since Antarctica is not a country, it does not have an economy of its own.  Because of the lack of authority for regulation, fishermen from many different countries exploit the resources of the surrounding oceans. 

Antarctica is increasingly becoming a place of tourism.  The tourists take an interest in the scenery, wildlife, and some of the research stations.  These tourists come by way of cruise ships.  The danger of the increasing number of tourists; however, is that the environmental damage will increase. (Bradshaw, 1997, p. 523) 

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1961 for nonmilitary scientific cooperation, environmental safeguards, and international control.  This agreement was further addressed in the Wellington Agreement in 1991.  This agreement banned commercial mining activities and introduced protection regulations.  The future of Antarctica will coincide with the level of adherence to the Wellington Agreement and the prospect of effective regulation of the marine resources surrounding the continent. (DeBlij, 2000, p. 563)    


     Bradshaw, M (1997). A world regional geography. Madison, WI; Brown & Benchmark Publishers.

     Clawson, D. (ed.) (2001). World regional geography. Upper Saddle River; NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

     DeBlij, H.J. & Muller, P. (2000). Geography; Realms, regions, and concepts. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

     Pulsipher, L. (2000). World Regional Geography. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

     World Population Data Sheet. (2000). Population Reference Bureau.

Review Questions

1) All of the following have some kind of resource with the exception of; A. Papua New Guinea; B. New Caledonia; C Nauru; D. Vanuatu; E. none of the above

2) The Southern Pacific region was colonized mostly by; A. France; B. Spain; C. Germany; D. Great Britain; E. Portugal

3) What type of climate would you most likely find on a South Pacific Island: A. cold temperatures with a lot of rainfall year-round; B. most moisture found around the atolls and little rainfall near the “high islands”; C. arid temperatures with no rainfall; D. a tropical climate with greater amounts of rainfall toward the western edges of the ocean; E. none of the above

4) The vegetation and animal life on the larger islands could be characterized by: A. numerous types of trees and a multitude of species of animals; B. no vegetation but numerous animals; C. many palm trees and many species of birds; D. no animal life can be found due to the lack of food source; E. none of the above 

5) Which country is the world’s third producer of nickel ore: A. New Caledonia; B. Papua New Guinea; C. Marshall Islands; D. Fiji; E. Cook Islands

6) Which region is very consistent in culture from one island to the next? A. Micronesia; B. Melanesia; C. Polynesia; D. Southwestern group; E. Northern group

7) Which of the following is something that the South Pacific region does not have to contend with: A. typhoons; B. floods: C. volcanoes; D. earthquakes; E. none of the above

Submitted by AnneMarie McRorie 5/23/01