How Do Hawaiian Volcanoes Work?

How Do Hawaiian Volcanoes Work?

Is it me, or do volcanoes have a bad reputation? Everytime I see a volcano in a Hollywood movie, it’s always the bad guy:

Proof that volcanoes are bad guys in movies. One of the volcanoes is even named “Mount Doom.”

Well, it’s true that a volcano’s lava can cause a lot of destruction. However, Hawaiian volcanoes are also in the business of creation – the beautiful Hawaiian islands would never have been formed without volcanoes. So, if you love Hawaii, then you’ve got to love volcanoes too!

lava flowing
Just look at it – what’s there not to love?Photo by paul (dex) bica

This begs the question: how did volcanoes make Hawaii? And why are only some volcanoes active? To answer these questions, I need to first tell you about “tectonic plates” and “hot spots.”

Tectonic Plates

The earth is like a freshly-baked chicken pot pie: it has a hard crust on the outside (the land under out feet) and is filled with hot soup underneath (the red, hot magma).

Earth is built like a pot pie: hard stuff on the outside, and gooey stuff on the insidePhoto by jeffreyw

The hard crust of the earth is not one whole piece – it’s made of about 15 different pieces called “tectonic plates.” These plates are slowly revolving like a treadmill. Believe it or not, the land underneath you is actually moving! We don’t feel it moving though, because the tectonic plates are moving at about 2.5 to 15 cm a year (source).

Photo by Blatant WorldThe earth’s surface is composed of over 10 different pieces called “tectonic plates.”

Hot Spots

No, I’m not talking about cell phone reception – “hot spots” are areas where magma escapes to the earth’s surface. There are many hot spots allover the world and of course, there is one right underneath the Hawaiian Islands.

At each hot spot will be a volcano. The volcanoes are formed as lava from inside the earth flows out. When this lava dries, it becomes lava rock. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the many layers of lava rock will stack and form the volcano’s mountainous-shape and form the island.

A Local's Advice

Fun fact: “lava” is a scientific word to describe magma that has reached the surface of the earth.

lava's surface is cooling
Think of lava as Mother Nature’s Lego blocks.Photo by Jiri Kopsa

Putting it all together

The hot spot beneath Hawaii created all the islands by spitting out lava. The island of Ni’ihau was the first to be formed by dried lava rock. As the tectonic plate moved in the northwest direction, the other islands were slowly created. The Big Island, or the island of Hawaii, is right above the hot spot, so it is actually still forming.

Photo by Waifer XCan you see the formation pattern of the Hawaiian islands?

[h4]We’ve got another island on the way![/h4]

In the future, Hawaii will add another island to it’s family – the island of “Loihi” is predicted to breach the ocean surface in about 100,000 years.

lava flowing into ocean
Photo by Vlad ButskyThis is how volcanoes give birth

Closing thoughts

So, if you have a burning desire to see a volcano eruption, know that you must go to the Big Island. Don’t be disappointed when you see our volcanoes erupt though — unlike in the movies, our volcanoes don’t terrorize towns but instead, spit out lava gently.

One thought on “How Do Hawaiian Volcanoes Work?

  1. Me and my husband will be in Hawaii in August this year, and we would like to know where we can see volcanoes and other attractions. Is it possible that you can send me information on where we should stay. Thank you

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