Volcanoes of the Big Island: Hawaii’s Geological Marvels

Kilauea Summit Eruption With Fumes


Hawaii, a tropical paradise in the heart of the Pacific, is renowned not only for its idyllic beaches, diverse marine life, and unique cultural heritage but also for its spectacular geological features: its volcanoes. The Big Island, the largest in the Hawaiian archipelago, is home to some of the world’s most active and studied volcanoes. This article delves deep into the heart of the Big Island’s volcanic wonders.


1. A Brief Geological Background


The Hawaiian Islands are a product of the Pacific tectonic plate moving over a hotspot, a region in the Earth’s mantle from which heat rises through the process of mantle convection. As the plate moves, the hotspot creates a succession of volcanic islands. The Big Island sits on the southeastern end, and as such, it is the youngest and still volcanically active.


2. Mauna Loa: The Earth’s Largest Volcano


By volume and area, Mauna Loa is the world’s largest shield volcano, covering half of the Big Island. While its elevation is around 13,678 feet above sea level, if measured from its base on the seafloor, it stands taller than Mount Everest! Mauna Loa is particularly notable for its frequent eruptions, which tend to be non-explosive due to the fluid nature of the basaltic lavas, but are vast in volume. Its most recent eruptions occurred in 1942, 1975, 1984, and 2022. The volcano’s sheer size and active status have made it a focal point for scientific studies and monitoring.


3. Kīlauea: The World’s Most Active Volcano


Adjacent to Mauna Loa lies Kīlauea, the world’s most active volcano. Unlike the expansive slopes of Mauna Loa, Kīlauea has a more pronounced caldera and a complex system of rift zones. Eruptions at Kīlauea can occur at the summit or along its rift zones, leading to spectacular lava flows that reach the ocean. The 2018 eruption was particularly significant, as it destroyed hundreds of homes and reshaped the landscape around the lower East Rift Zone. The Halemaʻumaʻu crater at its summit has also been the site of ongoing activity, with a lava lake that has fluctuated over the years.


4. Mauna Kea: The Tallest Mountain from Base to Peak


While Mauna Loa claims the title for the largest shield volcano, Mauna Kea steals the show when considering the base-to-peak height. Starting from the seafloor, Mauna Kea measures over 33,500 feet, dwarfing even Everest by this metric. Interestingly, Mauna Kea is currently dormant, with its last eruption occurring over 4,000 years ago. Today, it’s better known for the Mauna Kea Observatories, a collection of astronomical research facilities that benefit from the mountain’s clear skies and high altitude.


5. Hualālai: The Western Sentinel


Hualālai, on the Big Island’s west coast, is the third most active volcano on the island. Its last significant eruption was in 1801, but it has displayed signs of unrest since. With 100 cinder cones on its surface, Hualālai’s eruptions are explosive and pose a potential risk to the nearby Kona coast.


6. Kohala: The Ancestor Mountain


Kohala is the oldest volcano on the Big Island, having last erupted around 60,000 years ago. It stands as a testament to the island’s geological history, with deep valleys and ridges carved by eons of erosion.


The Relationship Between Culture and Volcanoes


The volcanoes of the Big Island are deeply intertwined with Hawaiian culture. Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes, is believed to reside in Kīlauea. Legends of her feuds and travels across the islands have been passed down through generations, and many Hawaiians pay respect to her through chants, dances, and offerings.




The volcanoes of the Big Island are not only a testament to the dynamic forces that shape our planet but also serve as a bridge to the rich tapestry of Hawaiian culture and mythology. They stand as both a reminder of nature’s awe-inspiring power and a symbol of the islands’ enduring spirit. Whether you’re a geologist, a history enthusiast, or just a curious traveler, the volcanoes of the Big Island promise a deep and enriching experience.


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