Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Submarine Volcanism
Hot spot research

Life-cycle of Hawaiian hot spot volcanoes

The Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamount chain of volcanoes are the product of a mantle hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Plate. The hot spot's current activity is underneath the southern end of the island of Hawaii and the next volcano in the chain, Lo'ihi Seamount, is forming on the sea floor just to the south of Hawaii and should emerge in another 200,000 years. (See maps of the entire chain.)

Diamond Head
Larger version

Diamond Head at sunset
Photo © J.B. Paduan, 2006

The volcanoes undergo a progression of eruption styles and chemistries as they age, from pre-shield stage (e.g., Lo'ihi), through the major shield-building stage (e.g., Kilauea), to post-shield (e.g., Haleakala) and rejuvenated stages (such as Diamond Head on Oahu when it erupted). As the enormous mountains build on top of the ocean crust, the crust flexes downward and the islands slowly sink. Coral reefs grow around the islands when sea level changes slowly enough for them to keep up with the sinking of the islands, and the reefs drown or are exposed if sea level rises or drops too quickly. Erosion takes an enormous toll on the islands: giant landslides have occurred off all the islands, and some of the debris has traveled hundreds of kilometers offshore.

Once the volcanoes are extinct, the islands continue to erode until they slip below sea level. The Emperor Seamount chain was once over the hot spot and probably looked much like the modern Hawaiian Islands, but the volcanoes have since submerged. The Pacific Plate is carrying the entire chain of islands and seamounts to the northwest as it drifts slowly to the Aleutian Trench and its ultimate subduction.

In these pages: our research on hot spot volcanoes

Related links

Cruise logs from our group's expeditions to Hawaii

MBARI has mapped around the Hawaiian Islands with high resolution multibeam sonar

Hawaii Map
Map of the Hawaiian Islands is a combination of MBARI's high resolution and other available bathymetric data
Map © 2001 MBARI

We contributed to the publication of this poster by the USGS

For more information on Hawaiian volcanoes, visit

| Hot spots | Mid-ocean ridges | Seamounts | Margin |

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Questions? Comments? Please contact Jenny Paduan
Last updated: Mar. 16, 2012