A Short History of Hawaii’s Volcanoes

Kilauea is the youngest and most active volcano on the Big island. At night, as the sky darkens, you can see the lava glow emanating from the volcano. As the sky gets darker, the lava glow changes from a faint pink to a dark red.
Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > A Short History of Hawaii’s Volcanoes

Volcanoes created each of the Hawaiian Islands, and the history behind them is quite fascinating.

My curiosity about the islands I live on led me to do more research on how and why these islands formed. It’s pretty amazing for me to think that I am writing this post as I sit on the very top of an extinct volcano.

How did these islands form?

The Hawaiian islands are one of the most remote chains of islands in the world. The islands that we stand on are just the tops of massive underwater volcanoes and are part of a chain of over 80 submarine volcanoes.

They began to form over 70 million years ago, and the chain is still changing.

Each volcano formed over a geologic hotspot. The tectonic plate that sits over the hotspot has been moving northwest over time. Because of this shift, the Hawaiian islands are in age-order.

The oldest island is Kauai to the northwest, and they get progressively younger until you get to the Island of Hawaii (known as the Big Island). The Big Island is the youngest Hawaiian island with the most volcanic activity.

This age difference explains the striking difference between Kauai and the Big Island. Lush and green with its multicolored sea cliffs, Kauai is 5 million years old. With its lava rock landscapes and a volcano that continuously erupts, the Big Island is less than 450,000 years old.

As the plate continues to move northwest, the newest island in the chain, the Big Island, will move away from the hotspot. A new volcanic island will form in its place.

We already know which island it will be. Loihi is an active submarine volcano that scientists can monitor. It is continuing to grow, and experts believe that it will be the next island. It may become fused with the Big Island.

Different kinds of volcanoes

If a volcano is probably never going to erupt again, it is called extinct. Active volcanoes are volcanoes that have erupted within the last 200 years. Finally, dormant volcanoes are volcanoes that have not erupted within the last 200 years. Scientists consider them dormant because they monitor them and believe they will erupt again.

Which volcanoes are still active on the Big Island?

Together, five islands make up the island of Hawaii (the Big Island): Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, you can take a guided tour that tells you all about the volcanoes and their history.

Kohala is the oldest volcano on the island and makes up the northern part of the Big Island. Kohala is extinct, last erupting 60,000 years ago. After this eruption, the northern part of the volcano collapsed into the ocean, which made the island smaller and created the cliffs of Pololu and Waipio Valley.

Mauna Kea is dormant and is the highest volcano on the Big Island. It most likely last erupted between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago.

You probably have heard of Mauna Kea because many tourists visit Mauna Kea for the free public stargazing programs. The stargazing views from this height are surreal, but because of the height of the volcano, you need a professional tour guide to drive you to the very top.

Kilauea is the youngest and most active volcano on the Big Island. It has been erupting continuously since 1983. When you hear about lava flows on the news, that lava is coming from Kilauea. Sometimes the lava flow is visible to people; sometimes it’s not.

But at night, as the sky darkens, you can see the lava glow emanating from the volcano. As the sky gets darker, the lava glow changes from a faint pink to a dark red.

Hualalai is the active volcano you probably hear about the least. Lava flow from its last eruption in 1801 can be found under the Kona International Airport.

Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth. Meaning “Long Mountain’ in Hawaiian, Mauna Loa covers half of the Big Island. It is also one of the world’s most active volcanoes, having erupted 33 times since 1843. Its last eruption was in 1984 – the lava came within 4.5 miles of Hilo, the largest city on the island! Experts carefully monitor Mauna Loa and consider it active.

Not yet a Hawaiian island, Loihi is the only known active Hawaiian submarine volcano. Located about 22 miles southeast of the Big Island, it is set to be the newest Hawaiian island — although it will be at least 250,000 years before the island reaches sea level.

Volcanic activity on Maui

Right next to the Big Island, Maui is the next youngest island in the Hawaiian chain.

Haleakala is a dormant volcano that forms most of the island of Maui. It last erupted between 400 and 600 years ago.

Many visitors come to Haleakala to view its spectacular sunrises. Tour companies will bring you up before the sunrise. You can ride your bicycle down to take in all of the beauty.

I think that knowing a bit of history about a place can make a difference when you come to visit. If you are interested in viewing one or more of these volcanoes, talk to our travel agents. They can arrange tours that will enhance your knowledge of the volcanoes in Hawaii and give you the best views.


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