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UH researchers find Hawaiʻi’s submarine volcano Kamaʻehuakanaloa has erupted at least 5 times in past 150 years

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Scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for the first time have been able to estimate the ages of the most recent eruptions — as well as eight older eruptions going back about 2,000 years — of the submarine Hawaiian volcano Kamaʻehuakanaloa about 20 miles off the south coast of the Big Island.

A color-shaded bathymetry map of Kamaʻehuakanaloa, formerly known as Lō‘ihi Seamount, a submarine volcano located southeast of the Big Island. The summit region is marked by pit craters formed in connection with an eruption and earthquake swarm in July and August 1996. (From past “Volcano Watch” article/courtesy of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

Renamed in 2021 by the Hawaiʻi Board of Geographic Names, the volcano formerly known as the Lōʻihi Seamount has erupted at least five times in the past 150 years, according to new research led by UH Earth scientists. The findings were recently published in Geology.

“Kamaʻehu is the only active and exposed example of a pre-shield Hawaiian volcano,” said Aaron Pietruszka, lead author of the study and associate professor in the UH-Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology Department of Earth Sciences. “On the other Hawaiian volcanoes, this early part of the volcanic history is covered by the great outpouring of lava that occurs during the shield stage. Thus, there is great interest in learning about the growth and evolution of Kamaʻehu.”

Previously, the only known and confirmed eruption of Hawaiʻi’s underwater volcano happened in 1996. It was only discovered because it coincided with a large swarm of earthquakes detected remotely by seismometers on the Big Island.

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“Seismometers can only be used to detect the ongoing active eruptions of submarine volcanoes because earthquakes are transient,” Pietruszka said. “In order to determine the ages of older eruptions at Kamaʻehu, we took a different approach. We used a mass spectrometer to measure tiny amounts of the isotope radium-226 in pieces of quenched glassy lava that were sampled from the seafloor outcrops of Kamaʻehu using a submersible.”

Magma naturally contains radium-226, which radioactively decays at a predictable rate. Pietruzska and the research article’s co-authors used the amount of radium-226 in each sample to infer the approximate time passed since the lava was erupted on the seafloor.

Undersea images of Kama’ehu lava, contrasting young (top) and old (bottom) lava. (Images courtesy of Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology)

Hawaiian volcanoes are thought to transition through a series of growth stages. Kamaʻehu is currently in the earliest submarine “pre-shield” stage of growth, whereas its active neighboring volcano Kīlauea is in its main shield-building stage.

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The chemistry of the lava erupted from Hawaiian volcanoes changes through time. The new eruption ages for the lavas from Kamaʻehu, coupled with measurements of lava chemistry, reveal that the timescale of variation in lava chemistry at this pre-shield volcano is about 1,200 years.

In contrast, Kīlauea lava chemistry changes over a timescale of only a few years to decades, with a complete cycle throughout about 200 years.

“We think that the origin of this difference is related to the position of the two volcanoes over the Hawaiian hot spot,” Pietruszka said. “This is an area of Earth’s mantle that is rising toward the surface — a ‘mantle plume’ that ultimately melts to form the magma that supplies Hawaiian volcanoes. Models and other isotope data from thorium-230 suggest that the center of a mantle plume should rise faster than its margin. Our results — specifically, the factor of six longer timescale of variation in lava chemistry at Kamaʻehu — provides independent confirmation of this idea.”

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Pietruszka started this investigation many years ago as a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, after finishing his doctoral degree in Earth science from UH. Once he returned to UH-Mānoa in 2019, he got access to submersible dive videos and photos around Kamaʻehu.

That provided the information he needed to finish connecting the dots.

“The lavas with the freshest appearance also had the most radium-226, and vice versa for the lavas with the ‘older’ appearance, that is, fractured and broken, and/or covered with marine sediment,” Pietruszka said. “I was surprised to discover that Kamaʻehu had erupted five times within the last 150 years, which implies a frequency of 30 years between eruptions at this volcano. This is much slower than at Kīlauea, which erupts almost continuously (with infrequent pauses of only a few years).”

The research team hopes to better understand how Hawaiian volcanoes work from their earliest growth stages to their full, and frequently active, maturity to help understand the deep controls on volcanic eruptions that initiate within the mysterious, upwelling mantle plume under the Hawaiian hot spot.

Three-dimensional rendering of the submarine Hawaiian volcano Kamaʻehuakanaloa. (Image from Wikipedia)

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