Geology and ground-water resources of the island of Kauai, Hawaii

Bulletin 13
Prepared in cooperation with the Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior
By: , and 



Kauai is one of the oldest, and is structurally the most complicated, of the Hawaiian Islands. Like the others, it consists principally of a huge shield volcano, built up from the sea floor by many thousands of thin flows of basaltic lava. The volume of the Kauai shield was on the order of 1,000 cubic miles. Through much of its growth it must have resembled rather closely the presently active shield volcano Mauna Loa, on the island of Hawaii. When the Kauai volcano started its growth is not known with certainty, but it is believed that activity started late in the Tertiary period, possibly in the early or middle part of the Pliocene epoch. Growth of the shield was rapid and probably was completed before the end of the Pliocene.
Toward the end of the growth of the shield, its summit collapsed to form a broad caldera, the largest that has been found in the Hawaiian Islands. Like the calderas of Kilauea and Mauna Loa, that of Kauai volcano had boundaries that were, in part, rather indefinite. The principal depression was bordered by less depressed fault blocks, some of which merged imperceptibly with the outer slopes of the volcano. Elsewhere the caldera rim was low, and flows spilled over it onto the outer slopes. The well-defined central depression of the Kauai caldera was approximately 10 to 12 miles across.
At about the same time as the formation of the major caldera, another, smaller caldera was formed by collapse around a minor eruptive center on the southeastern side of the Kauai shield. Lavas accumulated in the calderas, gradually filling them and burying banks of talus that formed along the foot of the boundary cliffs. The caldera-filling lavas differed from those that built the major portion of the shield in being much thicker and more massive as a result of ponding in the depressions. The petrographic types for the most part are the same throughout. Both the flank flows that built most of the shield and the flows that filled the calderas are predominantly olivine basalt. Picrite-basalt (oceanite), containing very abundant large phenocrysts of olivine, and basalt containing little or no olivine are present but together comprise less than 10 percent of the whole. Late in the period of filling of the major caldera a small amount of basaltic andesine andesite was extruded.
Near the end of the period of filling of the major caldera further collapse occurred, forming a large graben on the southwestern side of the shield. Lava flows erupting within the caldera poured southwestward over the cliff bounding the graben and spread over the gently sloping graben floor. Near the present Waimea Canyon their advance was obstructed by the fault scarp at the west edge of the graben. The cliff along the northeast edge of the graben eventually was buried by lava flows from within the caldera, but that along the west edge continued to stand above the level of the flows in the graben. The flows that accumulated in the graben are of the same types as those that filled the caldera, and like them are mostly thick and massive because of ponding by the graben walls and of the gentle slopes of the graben floor over which they spread.
The rocks of the major Kauai shield volcano are known as the Waimea Canyon volcanic series. The thin flows that accumulated on the flanks of the shield, which compose the major portion of the volcanic edifice, are named the Napali formation of the Waimea Canyon volcanic series. The rocks that accumulated in the big summit caldera are named the Olokele formation, and those that filled the small caldera on the southeast flank of the shield are named the Haupu formation. The volcanic rocks accumulated in the graben on the southwestern side of the shield are named the Makaweli formation of the Waimea Canyon volcanic series, and sedimentary rocks interbedded with them are known as the Mokuone member of the Makaweli formation.
Few vents of the Waimea Canyon volcanic series have been recognized, probably because most of them have been destroyed by erosion or are buried by later lavas. Large numbers of dikes cut the lavas of the Napali formation along Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast and along the east edge of the Waialeale massif. Fewer dikes are found in the other members of the series. Some tendency toward radial arrangement of the dikes is present, but the dominant trend all over the island is east-northeastward.
Another great collapse took place on the eastern flank of the volcano at about the time the major shield became extinct, or shortly afterward. A subcircular graben 6 or 7 miles across sank several thousand feet, forming a broad depression between the Waialeale massif on the west and Kalepa and Nonou ridges on the east. This collapsed structure cannot be as clearly demonstrated as the Makaweli graben on the southwest side of the shield, because its walls have been greatly eroded and its floor is deeply buried by lavas of the later Koloa volcanic series. It appears, however, to be the only reasonable explanation of the physiography of the eastern side of the island.
After the completion of the great Kauai shield came a long period of erosion during which no volcanic activity occurred. Waves cut high sea cliffs around the island, and streams cut canyons as much as 3,000 feet deep. Thick soil formed over much of the mountain.
Then volcanism was renewed. Eruption occurred from a series of minor vents arranged in nearly north-south and northeast-southwest lines across the eastern two-thirds of the island. The lavas, cinder cones, and ash beds of this period of volcanism are known as the Koloa volcanic series. Lavas of the Koloa volcanic series include olivine basalt, picrite-basalt (mimosite) with few phenocrysts of olivine, basanite, nepheline basalt, melilite-nepheline basalt, and ankaratrite (nepheline basalt very rich in pyroxene and olivine). Inclusions of dunite, composed almost entirely of olivine, are common in flows of the Koloa. Just before and during the eruption of the Koloa volcanic series, voluminous landslides and mudflows brought down a large amount of rock debris and soil from the steep slopes of the mountainous central upland and deposited it as breccias at the foot of the steep slopes in valley heads and along the border of the marginal lowland. Streams distributed part of the material across the lowland. The breccias and conglomerates thus formed, and later buried by lavas of the Koloa volcanic series, are named the Palikea formation of the Koloa volcanic series.
The structures formed at Koloa vents include cinder cones, one tuff cone, and lava cones. The latter are miniature shields resembling the major shield volcano, formed by repeated outpourings of fluid lava. The tuff cone, at the west side of Kilauea Bay, was formed by phreatomagmatic explosions caused by rising magma coming in contact with water-saturated rocks.
Volcanism during Koloa time continued for a long period but was not continuous over the entire area. Locally, long periods of quiet occurred, allowing streams to re-excavate some of the canyons filled by earlier flows of the Koloa volcanic series, and weathering to form soils later buried by new flows. Some of the canyons thus formed during the time when the Koloa was being deposited were several hundred feet deep. Volcanism probably continued throughout most of the Pleistocene epoch. The latest flow of the Koloa volcanic series appears very recent, and rests on lithified calcareous dunes formed during one of the Pleistocene low stands of the sea.
During the Pleistocene epoch stream valleys and sea cliffs were eroded to base levels governed by one or more stands of the sea more than 100 feet below present sea level. Beaches of calcareous sand were formed, and the sand blown inland to form calcareous dunes, now lithified. A test boring near Moloaa penetrated calcareous sand 160 feet below sea level, at the foot of a high sea cliff. Coral reef also was built around part or all of the island, and in part buried by lavas of the Koloa volcanic series. The explosions that built the tuff cone at Kilauea Bay threw up fragments of limestone from a buried reef. Much of the apron of lavas of the Kalna series around the northeastern side of the island probably rests on a platform formed below present sea level by wave erosion and the growth of coral reef.
As the sea rose around the island, the valley mouths were alluviated. Several levels of the sea higher than the present one probably are represented. Some stream terraces may be graded to a stand of the sea as high as 260 feet above present sea level, but no positive evidence for stands higher than 25 feet have been found. Well-preserved shorelines are recognized approximately 25 and 5 feet above sea level. Much of the present coral reef appears to have been formed when the sea stood about 5 feet higher than now, and reduced to its present level by solutional weathering and wave erosion.
The lavas of the Napali formation of the Waimea Canyon volcanic series are highly permeable. They carry basal water over much of the island, and yield it freely to wells. This water is fresh everywhere except very close to the coast on the leeward side of the island. In some areas they may contain water confined at high levels between dikes. The lavas of the Olokele and Haupu formations are moderately to poorly permeable. They probably contain fresh water at sea level, but would not yield it readily to wells. Locally, ash beds perch small bodies of fresh water at high levels in the lavas of the Olokele formation, but these are of no economic importance. The lavas of the Makaweli formation also arc moderately to poorly permeable. They carry fresh or brackish water at sea level. In general, they yield water to wells less readily than the lavas of the Napali formation, but more readily than the lavas of the Olokele. The conglomerates and breccias of the Mokuone member are poorly permeable, but are not known to perch more than a slight amount of water in the overlying lavas,
The lava flows of the Koloa volcanic series are poorly to moderately permeable. They carry fresh or brackish water at sea level, but generally yield it slowly to wells. Locally, small bodies of fresh water are perched at high levels in the lavas of the Koloa by beds of ash and soil and by breccia and conglomerate of the Palikea formation.
Both the older and the younger alluvium generally are poorly permeable, but contain small amounts of fresh or brackish water. The lithified calcareous dunes are permeable, but they appear to contain only brackish water. Lagoon deposits on the Mana plain are poorly to moderately permeable and yield brackish water to wells.

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Title Geology and ground-water resources of the island of Kauai, Hawaii
Series title Bulletin
Series number 13
Year Published 1960
Language English
Publisher location Honolulu
Contributing office(s) Division of Hydrography
Description vi, 212 p.
Country United States
State Hawaii
City Kauai
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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