Tall cinder cones atop the summit of Mauna Kea and lava flows that underlie its steep upper flanks have built the volcano a scant 35 m (115 ft) higher than nearby Mauna Loa.


Mauna Kea, like Hawai‘i's other older volcanoes, Hualālai and Kohala, has evolved beyond the shield-building stage, as indicated by (1) the very low eruption rates compared to Mauna Loa and Kīlauea; (2) the absence of a summit caldera and elongated fissure vents that radiate its summit; (3) steeper and more irregular topography (for example, the upper flanks of Mauna Kea are twice as steep as those of Mauna Loa); and (4) different chemical compositions of the lava.

These changes in part reflect a low rate magma supply that causes the continuously active summit reservoir and rift zones of the shield stage to give way to small isolated batches of magma that rise episodically into the volcano, erupt briefly, and soon solidify. They also reflect greater viscosity and volatile content of the lava, which result in thick flows that steepen the edifice and explosive eruptions that build large cinder cones.

The Hawaiian name "Mauna Kea" means "White Mountain" but is also known in native traditions and prayers as "Mauna a WAKEA" or "The mountain of WAKEA." Mauna a WAKEA is the first-born mountain son of WAKEA and Papa, the progenitors of the Hawaiian race.


Date published: April 22, 2021

Volcano Watch — How measuring gravity on Mauna Kea helps us monitor Mauna Loa

Gravimeters, essentially extremely precise pendulums, can measure a change in the force of gravity to one-in-one billionth of the force you feel every day. This force varies based on the distance and the amount of mass between the instrument (or you) and the center of the Earth.

Date published: December 14, 2020

USGS HVO Information Statement — Magnitude-4.4 Earthquake beneath northwest flank of Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i

The U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) recorded a magnitude-4.4 earthquake located beneath Mauna Kea's northwest flank on Monday, December 14, at 9:27 a.m., HST. 

Date published: July 16, 2020

Volcano Watch — Deep repeating earthquakes beneath Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea volcano hasn't erupted in over 4,500 years, but that doesn't mean it's quiet. In fact, for decades it has been hiding one of the most unique seismic signals seen at any volcano.

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