Hawaii: the power of volcanoes

lava flow during the 2018 Kilauea eruption

The power of volcanoes forged the islands of Hawaii. The most iconic landscapes of the archipelago were formed by volcanoes.

The eight islands that make up the archipelago owe their existence to a well of magma deep under the ocean floor known as the Hawaii hot spot.

The hot spot is currently below the archipelago’s youngest and most active landmass, the Big Island of Hawaii. Molten rock fuels the eruption of this island’s four active volcanoes: Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hualālai,and the offshore underwater volcano Lōihi.

the mighty forces of nature

The hot spot itself remains stationary however, the Pacific plate above it does not; it moves northwest at the speed of three to four inches a year. Consequently, the volcanic activity on the surface also shifts. This shift is what formed the islands and it puts the oldest island to the westernmost part of the archipelago. The more ancient islands are cut off from the magma supply and their volcanoes are no longer active. For example, the geologically oldest island of Kauai, formed roughly five million years ago.

Hawaii is part of a massive mountain range known as the Hawaiian Ridge-Emperor Seamounts chain, which stretches some 3,700 miles and nearly reaches the coast of Alaska. Volcanic activity in this area began 70 million years ago and counts numerous volcanoes. Hawaiian islands are the only ones above water though.

Many of the geologic beasts of the island chain have remained silent for thousands of years or more but Kilauea and Mauna Loa are two of the most active volcanoes in the world.

lava flow on the south side of the island of Hawaii

Hawaii’s volcanoes are “shield” volcanoes, whose lava flows form gently sloping, shield-like mountains. A good example is Mauna Loa, the most massive mountain on earth (it’s summit reaches 13677 feet in a very unique landscape), deceptively covering half of Hawaii Island. Standing with this sleeping giant beneath your feet will give you a greater respect for earth’s ever-changing landscapes. A volcanic eruption evolves continuously and we are lucky enough to witness it.

Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984.

a lava filled crater

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano made headlines in May 2018. A month-long eruption on the lower East Rift Zone ensued, the latest leg of a lengthy burst of activity that started in 1983. At times the lava spewed more than a hundred feet in the air and flowed like water. These deadly rivers inundated local communities and cost millions of dollars in damages and lost tourism.

The following pictures are before and after accounts of the destruction that ensued. This is the collapsed caldera. The houses in the front of the bottom pictures are the visitor center of Volcano National Park.

Large lava flows covered huge swaths of land in the southern part of the island. Many homes were devastated in residential areas (Puna District). The summit of Kilauea was shaken by earthquakes and the caldera collapsed. The 2018 eruption altered the island forever but since then there hasn’t been much going on at all at the giant shield volcano.

Approximately 35.5 square kilometers of the big island were covered with lava. Roughly 3.5 square kilometers of land were added to the island about 0.3% of the area of the island of Hawaii itself.

Over 700 homes were destroyed along with other structures across the area from Leilani Estates to Vacationland Hawaii, where the lava filled in Kapoho Bay entirely.

the lava flow meets the ocean

What is Kīlauea going to do next. The volcano had 35 years of nearly constant activity at Pu’u O’o and the summit, but now, after this lower East Rift Zone eruption, everything has stopped. Will Kīlauea continue to erupt on the lower East Rift Zone around where the Leilani Estates eruption occurred? Will it reestablish the lava lakes at the summit and Pu’u O’o? That seems unlikely considering the collapses that occurred at both.

Low carbon dioxide emissions and lack of inflation suggest that there isn’t much new magma coming into the system.

only time will tell what might happen next at Kīlauea but the consequences of the eruption will be felt for decades to come.

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