Hawaiian Islands Formed by Extrusive Volcanism, Scientists Find

New research, reported in the Geophysical Research Letters, changes our understanding of how the Hawaiian Islands formed.

Haleakala Crater in East Maui Hawaii. Image credit: University of Wisconsin.

Haleakala Crater in East Maui Hawaii. Image credit: University of Wisconsin.

Study leader Ashton Flinders from the University of Rhode Island and his colleagues have determined that it is the eruptions of lava on the surface, extrusion, which grow Hawaiian volcanoes, rather than internal emplacement of magma, as was previously thought.

Before this study, most scientists thought that Hawaiian volcanoes grew primarily internally – by magma intruding into rock and solidifying before it reaches the surface.

While this type of growth does occur, along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, for example, it does not appear to be representative of the overall history of how the Hawaiian Islands formed.

Previous estimates of the internal-to-extrusive ratios – internally emplaced magma versus extrusive lava flow – were based on observations over a very short time frame, in the geologic sense.

Flinders with co-authors compiled historical land-based gravity surveys with more recent surveys on the Big Island of Hawaii and Kauai, along with recent marine surveys. These types of data sets allow scientists to infer processes that have taken place over longer time periods.

“The discrepancy we see between our estimate and these past estimates emphasizes that the short term processes we currently see in Hawaii do not represent the predominant character of their volcanic activity,” Ashton Flinders said.

“This could imply that over the long-term, Kilauea’s East Rift Zone will see less seismic activity and more eruptive activity that previously thought. The 3-decade-old eruption along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone could last for many, many more decades to come,” added second author Prof Garrett Ito from the University of Hawaii – Manoa.

“I think one of the more interesting possible implications is how the intrusive-to-extrusive ratio impacts the stability of the volcano’s flank. Collapses occur over a range of scales from as large as the whole flank of a volcano, to bench collapses on the south coast of Big Island, to small rock falls,” Ashton Flinders said.

“Intrusive magma is more dense and structurally stronger than lava flows. If the bulk of the islands are made from these weak extrusive flows then this would account for some of the collapses that have been documented, but this is mainly just speculation as of now.”

The team hopes this new density model can be used as a starting point for further crustal studies in the Hawaiian Islands.

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Bibliographic information: Ashton F. Flinders et al. 2013. Intrusive dike complexes, cumulate cores, and the extrusive growth of Hawaiian volcanoes. Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 40, no. 13, pp. 3367–3373; doi: 10.1002/grl.50633