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A real Hawaiian hot spot

SUN JOURNAL

Volcano: Kilauea's latest outburst has caused death and devastation on the Big Island, but the lava flow has been a gusher of opportunity for some geologists.

August 14, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Moving north and west from Hawaii, the islands in the chain get progressively older and smaller. Each in its turn, Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the other islands were dragged off the hot spot by the northwestward movement of the Pacific Plate. One by one, their volcanoes went silent and, struck by landslides, collapses and erosion, they began to fall apart.

"Shoddy workmanship," Hon says. The islands are built on "pillow" basalts that emerge into deep ocean water and harden. "It's not like what we would think of as solid rocks. It's watermelons and ball bearings on the base of these islands."

Beyond the islands lies a string of coral atolls that grew up around still-older volcanoes, now vanished below the waves.

Farther up the chain, Midway Island still peeks above the waves. But beyond that, there is only the Emperor Seamounts. This string of undersea mountains marches northward and vanishes into the Kuril Trench, where the Pacific Plate dives beneath Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.

Magnetic and chemical analyses have confirmed the common history of the entire chain, Hon says.

But even as tourists snap souvenir photos of the glowing lava spilling from Kilauea's Pu'u `O'o vent, the old hot spot beneath their feet is giving birth to the next island in the chain.

Twenty-five miles southeast of Kilauea, at the bottom of the Pacific, Hawaii's youngest volcano, Lo'ihi, is also erupting. Discovered barely 25 years ago, the eruption has been piling up lava on the sea floor for 100,000 to 200,000 years, geologists say. Lo'ihi is nearly two miles tall, but its summit is still 3,300 feet below the ocean's surface.

So, that romantic getaway to a palm-shaded beach on Lo'ihi will have to wait. "We estimate it will be anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 years before it reaches sea level," Johnson says. "That's one to five times the length of civilization so far. We'll be lucky if humanity still exists."

For updates on the eruption, go to http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/ kilauea/update.

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