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Hawaii - Keynote pdf
Ring of Fire - Keynote pdf
Hot Spots - Keynote pdf
Decompression Melting - Keynote pdf
The Hawai'i Hot Spot - Keynote pdf

Formation of the Hawaiian Islands


The Hawaiian Archipelago is in the middle of the Pacific.

The eight major islands, in order:

  1. Hawai'i
  2. Mau'i
  3. Kaho'olawe
  4. Lana'i
  5. Moloka'i
  6. O'ahu
  7. Kaua'i

The eight major islands are constructed of 17 large (shield) volcanoes:









All of the large islands are volcanic in origin.
Currently, five volcanoes are active:

  1. Haleakala
  2. Hualalai
  3. Mauna Loa
  4. Kilauea
  5. Loih'i

See the Active Hawaiian Volcanoes Page at SOEST, the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at UH-Manoa.

Loih'i is 4000 m tall, its summit is 950 m below sea level.
See the Lo'ihi Page at SOEST.

The Big Island of Hawaii is the largest island, with about 60% of the land mass of the archipelago.
The island chain extends to the northwest from the Big Island.
The northwestern Hawaiian Islands mostly are atolls, e.g. Kure and Midway.

All of the Hawaiian Islands are volcanic.
There are over 100 volcanoes, most of which are submerged (seamounts).
See the Formation of the Hawaiian Islands Page at SOEST.

Ring of Fire

Magma - molten rock.
Lava - magma erupted onto the surface.

All lava is magma, but most magma is not lava.
90% of magma never reaches Earth's surface and solidifies inside Earth.

There are three primary types of volcanoes in the Pacific region:

  1. Volcanoes at the mid-ocean ridge (MOR)
  2. Continental and island arc volcanoes in the ring of fire
  3. Hot spot volcanoes

Mid-ocean ridge volcanoes for where the sea floor spreads at the East Pacific Rise.

Thousands of volcanoes in the Pacific region form near the continental margins.
Either as continental volcanoes or volcanic island arcs.
Pacific rim is called the Ring of Fire, because of the abundance of volcanism.

Examples of Island Arc Volcanoes:

Examples of Continental Volcanoes:

Most of these volcanoes are associated with subduction.
Subduction is the process where oceanic lithosphere subducts under continental or oceanic lithosphere.
Subduction occurs at convergent plate boundaries.

The exact method of magma generation during subducting is uncertain.
Possible mechanisms of magma generation at lithospheric plate boundaries include:

Hot Spots

Most volcanism occurs along plate boundaries, but volcanism in the interior of lithospheric plates occurs commonly.
These intra-plate spots of volcanism occurs at over areas of Earth's interior that are hotter than normal.
These regions are called hot spots.

Hot spots are regions of Earth's mantle that are hotter than the surrounding rock.

Approximately 100 hot spots are identified on Earth.
Hot spots can occur on the sea floor or on the continents.
Hot spots are characterized by a voluminous outpouring of lava.(e.g. Deccan Traps, Columbia River Basalts, or Yellowstone)
The voluminous amounts of lava are associated with the very high temperatures of hot spots - 1200 - 1400oC.

The chemical composition of the magma associated with hot spots tends to be slightly different than volcanoes at plate boundaries.
Along with the high temperature, this suggests that hot spots likely originate deep in the Earth.

Decompression Melting

Primary source of Earth's interior heat is radioactive decay.
Geothermal gradient - the increase in temperature with increasing depth.
Geothermal gradient averages about 30oC/km in the upper crust.
Temperature in the core is over 5000oC.
The geothermal gradient decreases in the mantle to about 0.1oC/km.

Most rocks melt at temperature of 1000oC or greater.
The temperatures for most of Earth's interior or greater than 1000oC; however, most of Earth is solid rock.
The pressure of the overlying rock prevents most rocks from melting.
Only the outer core is mostly liquid, the rest of Earth is solid rock.
In the outer core, the temperature is high enough and the pressure low enough to result in melting.

Why does some melting occur in the upper asthenosphere?

The process is called decompression melting.
Rocks are poor conductors of heat.
As hot, solid, less dense rocks ascend, the rocks reach areas of lower pressure where melting occurs.
Once the hot, solid rocks rise to the asthenosphere, near the base of the lithosphere, the temperature remains high enough and the pressure now is low enough that a small percentage of rocks melt.
Commonly only 1-4% of the rock melts.

The magma that is generated is less dense than the surrounding rock, so it rises to the lithosphere.

The Hawai'i Hot Spot

The Hawaiian hot spot forms a mantle plume.
The hot, less dense rocks rise to about 60 km deep, where a small percentage melts.
The magma continues to rise, because it is less dense than solid rock, and can erupt to form a volcano.
Currently the Hawaiian hot spot underlies the Big Island of Hawaii.

Some geologists suggest that magma that formed the Hawaiian Islands comes from rocks that originate as deep as the core/mantle boundary.
Where as most of the magma generated near plate boundaries comes from shallower in the mantle.

Hot spot is estimated to be 80-100 km wide as it rises.
The head of the hot spot can mushroom to a width of 100-200 km wide.

There is only one Hawai'i Hot Spot, under the Big Island of Hawai'i.
If there is only one hot spot in Hawai'i, why does a chain of islands form?
The Hawaiian hot spot is relatively stationary.
However, the Pacific lithospheric plate drifts to the NW.
The section of the East Pacific Rise (MOR), where is sea floor in the Hawaii region was formed, is off the west coast of the Americas.

A volcano forms over the hot spot, then drifts away.
Subsequently, a new volcano forms over the hot spot.
The process creates a chain of islands.

Why discrete islands form is not known, but several mechanisms are possible:

Evidence does show that the plumbing systems bend as the Pacific Lithosphere Plate drifts.

The changing characteristics of the Hawaiian Archipelago support the hot spot theory of formation.
With increasing distance from the hot spot:

Islands are progressively older to the NW, active volcanoes under Big Island.
Island are progressively more eroded to the NW and, past Kauai, mostly are atolls.

Beyond Kure, the Emperor Seamount chain extends to the Aleutian trench off Asia.
Entire chain is 6000 km long, the oldest volcanoes are 80 million years old.
The older seamounts likely were subducted or aggregated into Asia.

The kink in chain of volcanoes is about 43 million years old.

The reason for the kink is unknown.
The two most likely explanations are

  1. The kink in the chain indicates a major shift in the direction of seafloor spreading. It might be associated with the collision of India and Asia, or from the separation of Australia and Antarctica.
  2. The hot spot drifts. Evidence from a 2003 study indicates that the hot spot drifts south. From 80-43 million years ago, the Hawaiian Hot Spot might have drifted south at a faster rate.

The first exam notes are continued with Hawai'i Minerals and Rocks

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