Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Volcano Watch — One island chain, several lines of volcanoes

November 1, 2001

Most people know that volcanoes formed the Hawaiian island chain. Few realize, however, that the chain consists of two or more strands of volcanoes located along distinct but parallel curving pathways, variously called loci, lines, or trends. Multiple loci of volcanoes are intertwined to form one island chain.

One locus at the southeast end of the chain includes the volcanoes of Kīlauea, Mauna Kea, Kohala, Haleakalā (East Maui), West Maui, and East Moloka`i. This locus is called the Kea locus.

The other locus includes Lo`ihi, Mauna Loa, Hualālai, Mahukona (a submerged volcano centered about 60 km (35 miles) west-northwest of Mahukona, Kohala), Kaho`olawe, Lana`i, and West Moloka`i. This locus is called the Loa locus.

The pattern becomes harder to see farther up the chain. Some workers place Ko`olau on the Loa line and Wai`anae on another line that includes the two volcanoes on Kaua`i, with Ni`ihau on a separate line. Others include Ko`olau, Wai`anae, and Kaua`i on the Loa line and Ni`ihau through Nihoa on another one. Regardless of details and ambiguities, though, it is possible to place all of the volcanoes in the Hawaiian-Emperor chain along a small number of loci.

In 1849, the renowned pioneering geologist J.D. Dana noted these geographic patterns for the southeastern part of the island chain and coined the terms Loa and Kea series for the two most prominent loci. No one had much interest in such an empirical observation until the late 1960s, when, during development of the concepts of plate tectonics and hot spots, prominent geologists E.D. Jackson, Eli Silver, and G.B. Dalrymple revived and extended Dana's observations up the entire Hawaiian-Emperor chain.

The loci are not parallel to the island chain but instead are rotated clockwise from the Hawaiian chain as much as 30 degrees or so. Thus each locus is relatively short and gives way to another locus that brings the volcanoes back on trend. Each locus tends to start 25-75 km (15-45 miles) north or east of the average centerline of the chain and swings south or west for about the same distance before giving way to the next locus.

In general the order of shield development zigzagged back and forth between the Kea and Loa lines, in other words from Kohala to Hualālai to Mauna Kea to Mauna Loa to Kīlauea.

Despite these and other intriguing consistencies, some scientists doubt that the volcanoes are truly aligned along curving paths, in part because there is no unique way to connect all the different volcanoes, and in part because there is no easy way to explain the parallel loci. These doubts are lessening, however, as more evidence is found for differences between the Kea and Loa lines.

Exceptionally careful geochemical work has been done over the past decade in Hawai`i. One group of workers from Caltech, Wisconsin, and Germany has found that "the isotopic distinctions between Loa and Kea trend volcanoes imply a systematic difference in the magma supply and plumbing systems of volcanoes on these two trends."

Another group, from Cal-Berkeley and USGS, reported isotopic and chemical differences that are consistent "between volcanoes along the western "Loa" and eastern "Kea" trends and reflect large-scale variations in source composition and melting environment." These geochemists suggest that the two loci tap different parts of the plume that rises from the hot spot and becomes modified by incorporating different material from the mantle.

All well and good, but why don't volcanoes occur randomly rather than along two lines? P.D. Ihinger of Yale recently suggested that a strong current in the upper mantle beneath Hawai`i flows in a direction opposite, and about 30 degrees oblique, to that of the overriding Pacific plate. This current splits the rising hot-spot plume into "plumelets," which erupt along separate parallel lines. This is all pretty difficult stuff but is one early step along the way to developing an understanding for one of the most puzzling aspects of Hawaiian volcanism.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity of Kīlauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu`u `O`o vent during the past week. Lavamoves away from the vent toward the ocean in a network of tubes and descends Pulama pali in several separate tubes. Breakouts from the Kamoamoa tube system feed surface flows above and on the pali. Many surface flows, mainly from breakouts of the ocean entry tubes, are also observed in the coastal flats near the ocean. Lava continues to enter the ocean at Kamoamoa and the area east of Kupapa`u. A new ocean entry was first observed on Monday, October 29. This third ocean entry is in the vicinity of Kupapa`u.

The public is reminded that the benches of the ocean entries are very hazardous, with possible collapses of the unstable new land. The steam clouds are extremely hot, highly acidic, and laced with glass particles. Swimming at the black sand beaches of the benches can be a blistering or even deadly venture.

One earthquake was reported felt during the week ending on November 1. A resident of Leilani Estates subdivision felt an earthquake at 12:30 p.m. on October 27. The magnitude-1.8 earthquake was located 5 km (3 mi) ENE of Pu`ulena Crater at a very shallow depth. 

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.