Hawai'i Geology

Hawai'i Geology

Bob Ballard travels to Hawai'i to explore the terrestrial and deep sea geology of the Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world.


6 - 12+


Earth Science, Geology, Oceanography, Geography

National Geographic Television and Film

Earth’s rocky outer shell, its crust, is actually made of dozens of huge pieces of rock known as tectonic plates. These plates ride on currents of molten rock in the upper mantle, which lies just below the crust. Activity in the mantle and crustal plates results in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Most of these seismic events take place where two plates come together or tear apart.

The Hawaiian Islands, however, sit in the middle of the Pacific plate. They lie over a hot spot, where magma from the mantle pushes to the surface. The Hawai'i hot spot remains in one place while the Pacific plate moves steadily northwest. Hawai'i’s “Big Island” is still being formed by Mauna Loa and Kilauea, two volcanoes currently sitting over the hot spot. Loihi, an undersea volcano, also sits above the hot spot and will likely become the next Hawaiian island.

Fast Fact

  • The Loihi seamount is an active volcano on the seafloor about 35 kilometers (22 miles) southeast of the Big Island of Hawaii.

Fast Fact

  • Mauna Kea sits 4,205 meters (13,796 feet) above sea level, but its total height from the seafloor to its summit is 10,200 meters (33,500 feet).

Fast Fact

  • Hydrothermal vents on the seafloor were first discovered, sampled, and photographed in 1977. Scientists had long suspected that these undersea geysers existed but were shocked to find the thriving community of organisms living around them without access to sunlight.
Media Credits

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Meghan E. Marrero
Caryl-Sue Micalizio, National Geographic Society
Educator Reviewer
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Winn Brewer
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Alison Michel
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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