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The Geology of Hawaii: Islands, Volcanoes, and More

Updated on March 29, 2012

How the Hawaiian Islands were Formed

The Hawaiian Islands are part of the Sandwich Islands archipelago, which spans from the Northwest region of the Pacific Ocean to the Big Island of Hawaii. The islands were formed over a hot spot in the mantle that continuously pushes magma toward the crust’s surface.

You may be wondering how the hot spot moves across the Pacific Ocean to make the islands. This easy-to-read guide to the geology of Hawaii will explain how the Hawaiian Islands formed and give more information on Hawaii’s volcanoes.

This guide will also explore the current tectonic activity and the formation of Lo’ihi, Hawaii’s newest island in the chain. We will explore where the hot spot is now and predict what will happen in the future.


Definition of Geology Terms


The mantle is the outermost layer of the Earth’s core. The mantle is a giant magma layer that makes up more than half of our Earth.


The layer of liquid olivine that assists the crust in sliding over the mantle.


A mineral that is found in the lithosphere. When solidified, it is a olive green color and can only be found in places where magma reaches the surface of the crust.

The Formation of the Hawaiian Islands

The Sandwich Isles were created as a product of plate movement and a hot spot. Specifically, the slow movement of the Pacific Plate has contributed to how the islands formed.

Many believe that the hot spot is moving across the ocean floor; however, the hot spot is simply staying in one place while the Pacific plate moves over the hot spot.

Directly above the mantle is the Earth’s crust, which is made up of plates, or sections that move over the mantle and the lithosphere, which is mostly made of olivine.

Watch the video at the top of the page to see how the plate moved and ultimately created an archipelago.


Ring of Fire

Plate Tectonics (The Pacific Plate Movement)

As the plate moves, the hot spot causes volcanoes to form. The plate that created the Hawaiian Islands is the Pacific Plate, which is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate. Subduction occurs when a plate is going below another plate. When it does this, the layer of crust that subducts is then melted into minerals and becomes a part of the lithosphere.

The Pacific Plate is expanding as it is being subducted. As the plate pulls away from the coast of Chile, it creates the mountain range in South America. As the plates move and evolve, they change the shape of our land.

The hot spot that created the Hawaiian islands is unique in the way that it is no where near our continents. Can you imagine where the hot spot will be in millions of years?

Over time, the islands are eroded and sink below the ocean’s surface. The hot spot is currently underneath the Kilauea volcano that can be found on the Big Island of Hawaii. This hot spot is also pushing magma toward the surface and is creating a new island of the Puna coast. Scientists have named this island Lo’ihi. Although this island will not reach the surface for millions of years, scientists are studying it for more information on how underwater volcanoes are formed.

How the Hawaiian Islands Changed with Erosion (Mauinui)

As you will see below, the islands changed over time. Maui used to be a part of Lanai, Molokai and Koho'olawe. Overtime, however, the pressure on the land caused by rain, waves and plate movement changed the shape of the islands and created more of them carved out of Mauinui. The image below shows the change in shape of the islands over millions of years.

The Erosion of Maui Nui: Creation of Koho'olawe and Moloka'i

Mauinui over millions of years
Mauinui over millions of years | Source

Hawaii has five volcanoes. The most active is Kilauea, which is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. This volcano is actively pouring lava down the coast through craters. Hawaiians believe that the fire and war goddess, Pele, lives in Kilauea. It is said that if someone takes a rock from the volcano, their home will set on fire. I've never tried it, but I don't want to risk it.

Two Types of Lava Rock (A'a and Pahoehoe)


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Hawaiian volcanoes produce two types of "lava rock", or basalt. Basalt is an igneous rock that is pure, solidified magma. In Hawaii, minerals often add to the basalt's black color. Peridotite and olivine are two common minerals found in Hawaiian lava rock because they are only found in places like hot spots. The minerals enter the mixture from the lithosphere, the thin, upper layer of the mantle and the crust.

  • The darker rock in the photo above is called "a'a" ("ah-ah"), which is very sharp and rough; this texture is due to high temperatures and fast-moving lava (from spurts or heavy eruptions) when the volcano erupted.
  • The lighter rock is called Pahoehoe ("pah-hoy-hoy"), which is caused by slow-moving lava. It is a smooth rock with wrinkles in it and is usually silver due to the temperature of the minerals when cooling.

Where is the Hot Spot Now?

The Hawaiian hot spot has been beneath Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Recently, scientists discovered that a new volcano was forming off the coast of Puna on the Big Island. This volcano is submerged underneath the ocean and is continuing to grow as we speak.

This new island is called "Lo'ihi", which means small in Hawaiian. This island will probably become attached to the Big Island if it continues to erupt the way it has been, but not for another thousand years or so.

The Creation of an Island: Lo'ihi


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    • mwilliams66 profile image

      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      Brittany, I loved your hub. Really fascinating. The video is excellent.

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 5 years ago

      I've always wanted to visit Hawaii. I never knew that much erosion has caused the Islands to be so small to what they were a million years ago! Definitely very interesting. Voted Up and shared!


    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you so much, Jools! Hawaii is my home and I just love learning about how it came about. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Brittany, your video was really good and then you provided lots of additional info, a very professional hub, hope you get lots of hits!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      This is so cool! I love the video you made. Plate tectonics is such a fun and fascinating subject.

    • Lord De Cross profile image

      Joseph De Cross 5 years ago

      Thanks for the great info. Took Geology back in 82, and this is well researched. What intrigues me the most is..for how long Hawaii is going to stay like they way it is, livable and with no disruptions. Nature is still so enigmatic though.


    • pandula77 profile image

      Dr Pandula 5 years ago from Norway

      Very informative hub! hope to see more of these great hubs. Thanks!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Spectacular! I feel like I'm back in a geology class, learning about how the earth was formed! The information is incredible, and the photos and illustrations are beautiful. Voted up and awesome, and shared!

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, such an informative, incredible Hub. Your video & images gave a lot of insight into how the geological history of the islands shaped the flora and fauna.

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you so much, Robin! Hawaii's geology is so interesting since it is unlike any other volcanic environment in the world.

    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      This is amazing information. Hawaii's geology has always been intriguing to me. Thanks for sharing the information in such a great way. I loved the video!