Growth and degradation of Hawaiian volcanoes

Professional Paper 1801-3
By:  and 
Edited by: Michael P. PolandT. Jane Takahashi, and Claire M. Landowski



The 19 known shield volcanoes of the main Hawaiian Islands—15 now emergent, 3 submerged, and 1 newly born and still submarine—lie at the southeast end of a long-lived hot spot chain. As the Pacific Plate of the Earth’s lithosphere moves slowly northwestward over the Hawaiian hot spot, volcanoes are successively born above it, evolve as they drift away from it, and eventually die and subside beneath the ocean surface.

The massive outpouring of lava flows from Hawaiian volcanoes weighs upon the oceanic crust, depressing it by as much as 5 km along an axial Hawaiian Moat. The periphery of subsidence is marked by the surrounding Hawaiian Arch. Subsidence is ongoing throughout almost all of a volcano’s life.

During its active life, an idealized Hawaiian volcano passes through four eruptive stages: preshield, shield, postshield, and rejuvenated. Though imperfectly named, these stages match our understanding of the growth history and compositional variation of the Hawaiian volcanoes; the stages reflect variations in the amount and rate of heat supplied to the lithosphere as it overrides the hot spot. Principal growth occurs in the first 1–2 million years as each volcano rises from the sea floor or submarine flank of an adjacent volcano. Volcanic extinction ensues as a volcano moves away from the hot spot.

Eruptive-stage boundaries are drawn somewhat arbitrarily because of their transitional nature. Preshield-stage lava is alkalic as a consequence of a nascent magma-transport system and less extensive melting at the periphery of the mantle plume fed by the hot spot. The shield stage is the most productive volcanically, and each Hawaiian volcano erupts an estimated 80–95 percent of its ultimate volume in tholeiitic lavas during this stage. Shield-stage volcanism marks the time when a volcano is near or above the hot spot and its magma supply system is robust. This most active stage may also be the peak time when giant landslides modify the flanks of the volcanoes, although such processes begin earlier and extend later in the life of the volcanoes.

Late-shield strata extend the silica range as alkali basalt and even hawaiite lava flows are sparsely interlayered with tholeiite at some volcanoes. Rare are more highly fractionated shield-stage lava flows, which may reach 68 weight percent SiO2. Intervolcano compositional differences result mainly from variations in the part of the mantle plume sampled by magmatism and the distribution of magma sources within it.

Volcanism wanes gradually as Hawaiian volcanoes move away from the hot spot, passing from the shield stage into the postshield stage. Shallow magma reservoirs (1–7-km depth) of the shield-stage volcanoes cannot be sustained as magma supply lessens, but smaller reservoirs at 20–30-km depth persist. The rate of extrusion diminishes by a factor of 10 late in the shield stage, and the composition of erupted lava becomes more alkalic—albeit erratically—as the degree of melting diminishes. The variation makes this transition, from late shield to postshield, difficult to define rigorously. Of the volcanoes old enough to have seen this transition, eight have postshield strata sufficiently distinct and widespread to map separately. Only two, Ko‘olau and Lāna‘i, lack rocks of postshield composition.

Five Hawaiian volcanoes have seen rejuvenated-stage volcanism following quiescent periods that ranged from 2.0 to less than 0.5 million years. The rejuvenated stage can be brief—only one or two eruptive episodes—or notably durable. That on Ni‘ihau lasted from 2.2 to 0.4 million years ago; on Kaua‘i, the stage has been ongoing since 3.5 million years ago. As transitions go, the rejuvenated stage may be thought of as the long tail of alkalic volcanism that begins in late-shield time and persists through the postshield (+rejuvenated-stage) era.

Because successive Hawaiian volcanoes erupt over long and overlapping spans of time, there is a wide range in the age of volcanism along the island chain, even though the age of Hawaiian shields is progressively younger to the southeast. For example, almost every island from Ni‘ihau to Hawai‘i had an eruption in the time between 0.3 and 0.4 million years ago, even though only the Island of Hawai‘i had active volcanoes in their shield stage during that time.

Once they have formed, Hawaiian volcanoes become subject to a spectrum of processes of degradation. Primary among these are subaerial erosion, landslides, and subsidence. The islands, especially those that grow high above sea level, experience mean annual precipitation that locally exceeds 9 m, leading to rapid erosion that can carve deep canyons in
less than 1 million years.

Hawaiian volcanoes have also been modified by giant landslides. Seventeen discrete slides that formed in the past 5 m.y. have been identified around the main Hawaiian Islands, and fully 70 are known along the Hawaiian Ridge between Midway Islands and the Island of Hawai‘i. These giant landslides displace large amounts of seawater to generate catastrophic giant waves (megatsunami). The geologic evidence for megatsunami in the Hawaiian Islands includes chaotic coral and lava-clast breccia preserved as high as 155 m above sea level on Lāna‘i and Moloka‘i.

Large Hawaiian volcanoes can persist as islands through the rapid subsidence by building upward rapidly enough. But in the long run, subsidence, coupled with surface erosion, erases any volcanic remnant above sea level in about 15 m.y. One consequence of subsidence, in concert with eustatic changes in sea level, is the drowning of coral reefs that drape the submarine flanks of the actively subsiding volcanoes. At least six reefs northwest of the Island of Hawai‘i form a stairstep configuration, the oldest being deepest.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Growth and degradation of Hawaiian volcanoes
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1801
Chapter 3
DOI 10.3133/pp18013
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Volcano Hazards Program, Volcano Science Center
Description 50 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title Characteristics of Hawaiian volcanoes
First page 97
Last page 146
Country United States
State Hawaii
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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