What’s shaking deep under Hawaii?


Most people know Hawaii Island has many earthquakes, including several every year that are strong enough to be felt. They are caused by three dominant forces. The first force is volcanic. When magma moves underground, it stresses the rocks around it, creating earthquakes. These typically occur in the shallowest three miles of the volcano, although some can occur deeper. Volcanic earthquakes usually do not exceed magnitude 5 in size.

The second force results from the settling of the Hawaiian Islands. As the islands grow larger over time, they tend to flatten because of gravitational forces. This causes the volcanoes to spread under their own weight. The spreading affects the entire volcano but the stress is most easily released on the interface between the spreading volcanic island and the underlying ocean floor on which the volcanoes are built. Sediment, which accumulated on the ocean floor before the Hawaiian volcanoes began to grow, acts as a lubricant for spreading, but the boundary is still a sticky one. The largest and most damaging earthquakes that take place in Hawaii — including the 1975 magnitude-7.7 Kalapana earthquake — occur along this interface.

The third force is the weight of the volcanoes on the Earth’s surface, which can cause earthquakes around each of the Hawaiian Islands. Such earthquakes usually occur in the Earth’s mantle, beneath the six-mile-thick oceanic crust on which the volcanoes are built. The 2006 magnitude-6.7 Kiholo Bay and 1973 magnitude-6.2 Honomu earthquakes are examples of this force in action.

As many of us learned in primary school, the Earth is made up of a solid inner core floating within a molten outer core. The outer core is surrounded by mantle, which makes up the bulk or our planet, and the crust is the very thin outermost shell on which we all live.

Pressures are already high in the mantle because of all the rock that lies above. Additional stresses arise from the weight of the islands pushing down on the crust below. It is these additional stresses that build in the mantle and create the environment where an earthquake can happen. Earthquakes that occur in the mantle can be very large, as nearly everyone who was in the state on Oct. 15, 2006, can appreciate (that was when the magnitude-6.7 Kiholo Bay earthquake caused heavy damage on the Big Island, closed roads on Maui, and knocked out power to Oahu). Thankfully, the fact that mantle earthquakes occur at such deep levels means that the shaking is less intense at the surface than it would be if the earthquakes were much shallower.

Mantle earthquakes can occur anywhere under the Hawaiian Islands, although they are most common on the younger islands. The most recent strong mantle earthquake occurred just last week, when an magnitude-5.3 event was recorded at 40 km depth off the south coast of Hawaii Island. The earthquake was widely felt but caused no damage. Still, it serves as a good reminder of just how strong these mantle earthquakes can be.

Even to the northwest of the Big Island, the mantle is still being stressed by the weight of the older volcanoes that make up the island chain. As a result, mantle earthquakes can cause damage on older islands, like Oahu and Kauai, even though the volcanoes that make up those islands haven’t been active in many thousands of years. For that reason, it is important all residents of the state, and not just Hawaii Island, know what to do in case of an earthquake. Stay tuned to this column for more details on earthquake preparedness in the months to come.

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within the Halemaumau Overlook vent produced nighttime glow visible from the Jaggar Museum overlook and via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lava lake rose slowly during the week and reached a level 135 feet below the floor of Halemaumau as of Wednesday.

On Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, breakouts from the Peace Day tube remain active at the base of the pali and on the coastal plain. Small ocean entries are active on both sides of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary. The Kahaualea II flow, fed from a spatter cone on the northeast edge of the Puu Oo crater, continues to spread slowly at the edge of the forest north of Puu Oo.

There was one earthquake felt on the Big Island in the last week.

On Wednesday at 5:12 a.m., there was a magnitude-3.2 earthquake that occurred seven miles southeast of Hookena at a depth of 10 miles.

Visit the HVO website at hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.