Study by URI grad student finds extrusive volcanism formed Hawaiian Islands

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – October 11, 2013 — A recent study by a University of Rhode Island doctoral student and colleagues at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa changes the scientific understanding of how the Hawaiian Islands were formed. Lead author Ashton Flinders, a student at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, found that it is the eruptions of lava on the surface, called extrusion, that grows Hawaii’s volcanoes rather than internal emplacement of magma, as was previously thought.

Before this work, most scientists thought that Hawaiian volcanoes grew primarily internally – by magma intruding into rock and solidifying before it reaches the surface. According to Flinders, this type of growth does occur — along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, for example – but it does not appear to be representative of the overall history of how the Hawaiian Islands formed. Previous estimates of the internal-to-extrusive ratios (internally emplaced magma versus extrusive lava flow) were based on observations over a very short time frame, in the geologic sense.

Flinders compiled historical land-based gravity surveys with more recent surveys on the Big Island of Hawaii and Kauai, along with marine surveys from the National Geophysical Data Center and from the University of Hawaii’s R/V Kilo Moana. These types of data sets allow scientists to infer processes that have taken place over longer time periods.

“The discrepancy we see between our estimate and these past estimates emphasizes that the short-term processes we currently see in Hawaii (which tend to be more intrusive) do not represent the predominant character of their volcanic activity,” said Flinders.

“This could imply that over the long-term, Kilauea’s East Rift Zone will see less seismic activity and more eruptive activity than previously thought. The three-decade-old eruption along Kilauea’s ERZ could last for many, many more decades to come,” said Garrett Ito, professor of geology and geophysics at UHM and co-author.

“I think one of the more interesting possible implications is how the intrusive-to-extrusive ratio impacts the stability of the volcano’s flank. Collapses occur over a range of scales from as large as the whole flank of a volcano, to bench collapses on the south coast of Big Island, to small rock falls,” said Flinders.

Intrusive magma is more dense and structurally stronger than lava flows. “If the bulk of the islands are made from these weak extrusive flows then this would account for some of the collapses that have been documented, but this is mainly just speculation as of now,” Flinders added.

The authors hope this new density model can be used as a starting point for further crustal studies in the Hawaiian Islands.