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The Island of Hawaii and Its Six Volcanoes

Updated on July 17, 2018
Chuck profile image

Chuck enjoys traveling and over the years has had the opportunity to visit many places in the U.S. and the world.

Beauty and Destruction

Volcanoes, like their close cousins earthquakes, are responsible for both massive destruction as well as for the creation of many of the beautiful landscapes on our earth. The Earth as we know it today was created eons ago.

The job, however, is not done as nature continues to tear down and rebuild the contour of the land much as we humans continually demolish old and useless structures in order to make way for new ones.

Without the upheavals caused by volcanoes, earthquakes and other shifts and movements in the Earth's crust, our planet would be nothing more than a smooth spherical ball completely covered in water and orbiting the Sun.

A visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, which is the largest island in the Pacific Ocean island chain that makes up America's 50th state of the same name, provides a perfect example of both the beauty and destruction that results from volcanic activity.

Beauty and Destruction

Volcanic activity created this lush, tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Like the thousands of other volcanic islands that dot the Pacific Ocean, the tropical climate, the ocean, the flowers, the sunsets, the beaches all combine to evoke the images and feelings of romance and desire to escape the stress of the modern world which, a century ago, lured the Parisian stockbroker turned artist, Paul Gauguin, to Tahiti.

But there is a dark side that accompanies the creative beauty of volcanoes and that is the massive damage and destruction that accompanies their activity and this is also evident on the Island of Hawaii. Erupting volcanoes and the earthquakes that often accompany them cause buildings, bridges and roads to collapse while the molten lava flowing from the volcano buries everything in its path leaving behind an area buried under hard black rock and devoid of practically all life. Those fortunate enough to be located beyond this epicenter of destruction still face illness and death from the poisonous gases spewing from the volcano.

Black Sand Beach at Panalu'u
Black Sand Beach at Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Green Sand Beach on Mahana Bay near Panalu'u
Black Sand Beach at Panalu'u
Black Sand Beach at Panalu'u

The Volcanoes Today

Today the island consist of five live volcanoes all of which have erupted in modern times and all of which can be expected to erupt at any time. In 1984 the island's largest volcano, Mauna Loa, underwent a massive eruption spewing massive amounts of ash, deadly gases and molten lava. At one point the advancing lava was heading toward Hilo, the island's largest city and one that was not stranger to volcanoes as it is built on top of lava flows from long ago eruptions of Mauna Loa and other volcanoes. After, some days of uncertainty, the advancing lava halted short of the city and the volcano went back to sleep for the time being.

In addition to the five volcanoes that have merged to form the island, which is bigger than all of the other islands in the chain combined, there is a sixth one, Loihi, which is relatively new and currently resides some distance away and under water. However, it continues to grow and scientists predict that in an eon or so from now it will reach the surface and first be a separate island and then continue to grow and merge with the present island of Hawaii.

Along with being the largest island in the Hawaiian Island chain, Hawaii is also the youngest, in terms of geologic age, and newest of the islands. While the other islands have slowly drifted with the earth's crust northwestward and off the vent in the earth's crust which feeds the magma (note: magma is the term applied to the hot, molten rock inside a volcano. Once the magma is spewed out of the volcano it is called lava which is the hot, liquid rock that flows from a volcano) into the volcano from which it escapes to the surface. The volcanoes on the other islands have shut down and are simply the dead remains of once active volcanoes.

Because the island of Hawaii is much newer, in terms of geological time, and its volcanoes still spewing lava periodically, it offers many sights that are no longer seen on the other islands. Traveling around the island one can view vast fields covered by smooth, black lava now cooled and solidified into hard rock. Other lava beds consist of course chunks of loose lava rocks ranging in size from pebbles to small boulders that cover the land like the smooth lava and, also like the smooth lava fields, only the occasional plant or small bush has succeeded in establishing themselves in this otherwise barren, black rock landscape.

The fields of cooled and hardened lava are not the only volcano created unique landscape on the island, as it also sports some unusual beaches whose sand is either black or green rather than the usual tan. Thanks to the volcanic activity, the green and black sand is replenished thereby keeping keeping the beach's color constant as the green and black sand, in the absence of volcanic activity, would normally be washed away over time and replenished with the more common tan colored sand. Just as the unique geology of the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico preserves the unique pure white sand in that area, so too does the volcanic activity on Hawaii preserve its black and green sand beaches.

Views From the Cliffs on Northeast Side of Kohala Volcano


Kohala Volcano

Kohala, in the northwestern corner of the island is the oldest volcano that makes up the island. Scientists believe that the Kohala volcano emerged from the sea, to form what has become the Island of Hawaii, about a half a million years ago. About 300,000 years after it broke the surface of the ocean, a huge chunk of the volcanoes side broke off and fell into the ocean and leaving behind the jagged cliffs found facing the ocean on its northeast side. Today, this is one of the many physical features that make up the island's spectacular and varied beauty.

Kohala last appeared to have erupted about 60,000 years ago and today is considered to be an extinct volcano which is no longer active or growing and also no longer poses a threat to life and property on the island.

With no new lava being spewed out to add height to the volcanoes' summit and the eroding of the summit by wind and rain over the last 60,000 years has left Kohala with an elevation of about 1,000 meters or just under 3,300 feet. At the same time, lava from its sister volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea has covered and buried much of the southern side of Kohala.

Summit of Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa poking through clouds as seen from an airplane
Summit of Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa poking through clouds as seen from an airplane | Source
Part way up Mauna Kea summit
Part way up Mauna Kea summit | Source
Visitor Center part way up Mauna Kea Summit.
Visitor Center part way up Mauna Kea Summit. | Source
Warning of slippery and possibly icy road (in August) going up summit of Mauna Kea
Warning of slippery and possibly icy road (in August) going up summit of Mauna Kea | Source

Mauna Kea Volcano

Mauna Kea is Hawaii's second largest volcano in terms of its mass and, at 4,205 meters (13,796 feet) or 2.6 miles high its summit is the tallest of any of the island's volcanoes. The 4,205 meter height is the volcanoes' height above sea level. Adding the additional 9,753 meters (32,000 feet) of sea water that lies between the volcanoes' base on the ocean floor and the surface of the ocean to the 4,205 meters that reside above water gives a height from base to summit of 13,958 meters or almost 8.7 miles high.

The world's tallest mountain, Mt. Everest, rises 8,848 meters or about 5.5 miles from base to summit, which makes Mauna Kea about 3.5 miles higher than Mt. Everest when measured from base to summit. While the criteria for determining a mountain's height is its height above sea level, this comparison of Mauna Kea to Mt. Everest gives an idea as to the huge quantity of lava that has been spewed from the bowels of the Earth and out of Mauna Kea since it began about a million years ago.

In the Hawaiian language the word Mauna means mountain and Kea means white which combined translate as White Mountain in English. Because of its height, Mauna Kea can not only be easily seen from a boat at sea, but its summit is also covered with snow during the winter months. In fact, geologic evidence indicates that during previous ice ages, the summit of the volcano was covered with glaciers. Many speculate that the first Hawaiians migrating by outrigger canoe first spotted the snow capped peak of Mauna Kea and navigated toward it to find the island where they gave the name White Mountain or Mauna Kea to the volcano.
While still considered an active volcano that could errupt again, Mauna Kea's last eruption appears to have been about 4,000 years ago.


Mauna Loa Volcano

Mauna Loa is the world's largest volcano in terms of its mass. Fifty percent of the land mass of the island of Hawaii is Mauna Loa and its size is equal to 85% of the surface area of all the other islands in the Hawaiian chain combined. According to the U.S. National Park Services' exhibit in the Jaggar Museum at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Mauna Loa is the tallest volcano on the island and, measured from base on the ocean floor to its summit, is taller than Mt. Everest. There is no question about Mauna Loa being taller than Mt. Everest when measured from ocean floor to its summit however, according to the U.S. Geological Survey website the neighboring Mauna Kea volcano is 35 meters higher than the Mauna Loa summit.

However, just as Mt. Everest is considered taller than Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa because its summit rises higher above sea level than these two volcanoes, the National Park Service people may be considering Mauna Loa higher than Mauna Kea because the immense weight of Mauna Loa has caused it to sink 8 kilometers below the ocean floor. So, while when measured from sea level to summit or from ocean floor to summit, Mauna Kea may be 35 meters higher than Mauna Loa, from it base BELOW the ocean floor to summit, may be taller than either Mt. Everest or Mauna Kea. It all depends upon how you define tallest.

Thirty-five meters aside, there is no question that the Mauna Loa volcano is incredably larger than Mauna Kea by every other measure. The Hawaiian name Mauna Loa translates into Long Mountain and it is long, stretching from the southern tip of the island to the northern coast filling in the empty space between three of the other four volcanoes. Looking at the map, one can see that, without Mauna Loa, the island of Hawaii would not exist as the other volcanoes would be small islands unto themselves. Like Manua Kea, Mauna Loa's peak is covered with snow in the winter.

Like Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa first began erupting between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years ago and emerged about the water about 400,000 years ago as did Mauna Kea. Unlike, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa is Hawaii's second most active volcano with its most recent eruption in 1984 and warnings that it can erupt again at any time.

Hualali Volcano

Hualali sits on the northwestern edge of the Mauna Loa volcano and is both the third youngest and third most active volcano on the Island of Hawaii.  While this volcano has been quiet for the past couple of centuries with only one or possibly two eruptions since Captain Cook's arrival in 1790, scientists anticipate that it will erupt again in the next century or so.

Kilauea Volcano

The Kilauea Volcano is the youngest and most active volcano on the Island of Hawaii and possibly the most active volcano in the world.
Records show almost continuous eruption during the nineteenth century and there have been 34 eruptions since 1952. There has been a continuous flow from the volcano since 1983 and major activity since April 2008 has resulted in the total destruction of a county road and closures of roads and camping areas within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in which the active parts of the volcano are located.
Gases being emitted from the volcano have cast a constant cloud over much of the island for the past year, dimming tropical sunsets, damaging plant life including the island's coffee trees and posing a minor health hazard to some.
However, despite these negative aspects, the volcano is a major tourist attraction and has provided a continuous show for tourists.

© 2009 Chuck Nugent


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    • htodd profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      I like the pics ..sometimes it is good to see Volcanoes

    • Donna Suthard profile image

      Donna Suthard 

      9 years ago

      I've been to Kilauea! It was learn that people can live on an island that's always flowing lava.It was such an island of contrasts. I'll always remember how people would spell out their names in white coral and then place it on top of the volcanic rock! I brought home, and donated some of my volcanic rock to a school I used to work in..I made sure it was acceptable to PELE!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      that is awesome. and sad in some ways

    • Dr. Sage profile image

      Dr. Sage 

      9 years ago

      Nice article. I recently had the opportunity to hike out to where the lava from Kilauea is entering the ocean. It was an amazing experience and one I highly recommend to anyone with an adventurous spirit!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This has wonderful pictures that are very interesting and this It actually helped me with my homework:>)

      That by the way is a sideways SMILEY FACE!!!!!!

    • susantoandre26 profile image


      10 years ago


    • lender3212000 profile image


      10 years ago from Beverly Hills, CA

      Those volcanoes certainly make for a majestic and beautiful looking landscape! One of these days, I'm going to plan a trip so I can explore around the islands a bit.

    • kartbahnfan profile image


      10 years ago from Dusiburg, Germany

      it did not help me with my homework, but it was nice to read ;)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This really helped me with my homework thankyou!

    • profile image

      syrian king 

      10 years ago

      wow really interesting im writing a project about the mauna kea and it told me alote of stuff about it thank you for

      giving me alote of information and i just figured out that the mauna kea is the largest volcano in the world!!!

    • ciidoctor profile image


      10 years ago

      good hub,thank you.

    • supergadgets profile image


      10 years ago from Moscow

      Very informative with lots of interesting Hawaii and volcano photos. Especially black sand beach is very interesting.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      really i dint knew there are this much volcanoes

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      11 years ago from Chicago

      I appreciate the gorgeous photos and the fine information that you, as usual, presented very well. Thanks!

    • fortunerep profile image

      Dori S Matte 

      11 years ago from Hillsborough

      Very informative and beautiful pics.


    • profile image

      Ellie Perry 

      11 years ago

      Great article. As a transplant from Hawaii, I appreciate your writing and enjoyment of the island. Informative. Thanks.


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