The state of Hawaii is entirely made out of volcanoes.
It’s a unique thing on this Earth. Hawaii might be the strangest place in America. It started being formed 30 million years ago by a hotspot of lava rising from beneath the Pacific. Each island is a mountain of cooled lava rising from the bottom of the sea. Mauna Kea on the southwesternmost island is taller than Mount Everest, measured from its peak to its base at the ocean floor.
As the Earth’s tectonic plates slowly slide around, the lava tubes that formed one island break, and another set forms and slowly builds up a new island.
Most of Hawaii’s volcanic vents are extinct, and some of them are open to tourists. The others you can only enter if there’s nobody watching.
Hawaii is prone to earthquakes, so there’s always the possibility of a cave-in. When my fiancée and I went exploring one of these lava tunnels with her family, we found a huge stone that had recently fallen from the ceiling.
In parts the ceiling and cave walls look like something organic because they froze in mid-flow, letting only the hottest lava inside make it out of the tunnel to wreak destruction on the land.
It’s awesome, but you don’t want to stay down there too long.
The youngest, biggest island (named Hawaii, also the state’s name) is the most active. Mount Kilauea’s oozing lava destroyed most of the community of Kalapana in 1990. Three years ago, some truly dramatic pictures were captured of Kilauea claiming one of the community’s last remaining homes.
Right now an undersea volcano is forming a new island off the southeast coast of the Big Island, but it probably won’t peek above the waves for at least 10,000 years.
Once a Hawaiian island is formed, it doesn’t stay there forever. Each once-mighty volcano erodes and slowly sinks back into the sea over millions of years. This is still happening today: You can see the path that the volcano chain has taken over the eons.
It’s another example of the kinds of things going on all the time that we don’t notice because they occur on time-scales we’re not used to.
Hawaii has dozens of these “Atlantis” islands filled with the fossils of long-lost species that may never be found. Like the mythical city of Atlantis that’s said to have disappeared into the sea, Hawaii’s smaller Western islands are the last remnants of islands drowned by time.
Because the motion of the plates over that deep-Earth hotspot has formed so many volcanoes over time, the few Hawaiian islands you usually see on a map are only part of the picture. Most maps only show seven of Hawaii’s islands, but the state has about 137 islands and atolls stretching across much of the Pacific. Hawaii is by far the longest state in America. It’s about as wide east-to-west as the contiguous U.S. is tall from north to south.
I’ve always been proud to be an American. Why is America awesome?
Well, Hawaii, for one thing.