This study quantifies long-term landscape changes in the Hawaiian archipelago relating to dispersal, speciation and extinction. Accounting for volcano growth, subsidence and erosion, we modelled the elevations of islands at time intervals of 0.5 Myr for the last 32 Myr; we also assessed the variation in the spacing of volcanoes during this period. The size, spacing and total number of volcanic islands have varied greatly over time, with the current landscape of large, closely spaced islands preceded by a period with smaller, more distantly spaced islands. Considering associated changes in rates of dispersal and speciation, much of the present species pool is probably the result of recent colonization from outside the archipelago and divergence within contemporary islands, with limited dispersal from older islands. This view is in accordance with abundant phylogenetic studies of Hawaiian organisms that estimate the timing of colonization and divergence within the archipelago. Twelve out of 15 multi-species lineages have diverged within the lifetime of the current high islands (last 5 Myr). Three of these, and an additional seven (mostly single-species) lineages, have colonized the archipelago within this period. The timing of colonization of other lineages remains uncertain.