An Introduction to the Marshall Islands
A Brief Geographic and Physical Description of the Island Chain
Continue by exploring the menu options above

The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of over 2,000 small, low-lying coral islands and islets clustered in 29 atolls and 5 table reefs in the West Central Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator and west of the international dateline.

map source

The land area of Marshall Islands is made up of the carbonate remains of coral reef plants and animals and include sands, gravel, cobbles, boulders, consolidated limestone debris, and beachrock. The soil is very thin and of poor quality. Nevertheless, many plants grow on the island and provide food, materials for houses and transportation, food storage, and clothing, as well as perfumes, medicines, and many other items. To learn about all the traditional uses of plants click here, or click here for agroforestry.

Photo of a portion of the coastal area and lagoon of Mājro atoll

The islands and atolls lie in two parallel chains known as the east branch and the west branch (Ratak and Rālik). In true atoll form, they are narrow and low and encircle large central lagoons. There are more than 1,150 islands in these two chains. See Island Profiles for cross-section diagrams of the atoll islets.

Enlarged map with new Marshallese orthography

Most islands have an average elevation of about 2 meters (6 ft) above the sea level with only a portion of a few islands higher than 5 meter or 16 ft in height.
On most islands the highest thing is a tall tree, such as a breadfruit or coconut palm. Storms sometimes wash away complete islands.

Photo right - A section of the coral reef and a forest-covered islet at low tide at Mājro atoll.


Dr. Mark Merlin, lead author for the book Plants and Environments of the Marshall Islands, which inspired the production of this Website, along with the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, thank the following Marshallese people for their advice, information, and support: Alfred Capelle, Michael Kabua, Carmen Bigler, Hilda Heine, Nancy Vander Velde, Ione Heine deBrum, Herbert Shoniber, Winjang Ritok, Ermi Rilometo, Jerike Lavin, Likito Lajar, Rev. Kanki Amlej, Tomo Lajio, Lina Tareo, and several other knowledgeable people in the Marshall Islands who provided assistance.

Dr. Merlin also acknowledges the significant contributions of Dr. Lawrence Hamilton, Dr. James Juvik, Dr. Thomas Keene, and Dr. James Maragos for their research and scientific contributions to the orginal environmental education book. Many thanks also to the web designer Becky Rathgeber and Shen DeShayne for the ongoing updates to this site, and to Dr. Letitia Hickson Dr. Julie Walsh Kroeker, and Dr. Byron Bender for their contributions. Thanks as well to Dr. Dirk Spennemann for allowing us to use his illustrations. All photographs, unless acknowledged otherwise, were taken by Mark Merlin. Much of the research and photography that is the background for this web site was supported by funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawai`i. Additional support was provided by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies Title VI National Resource Center grant.

invisible hit counter