M=4.5 earthquake highlights Hawaii’s tectonic past, present, and future

By David Jacobson, Temblor

See earthquakes in Hawaii

While most people think of volcanoes when they think of Hawaii, the volcanism is closely tied to tectonic activity, which has helped shape the Hawaiian Archipelago. (Photo from: wpengine.netdna-cdn.com)


Yesterday afternoon, a M=4.5 earthquake along the Hilina fault system shook the Big Island of Hawaii, underneath Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The quake registered moderate shaking near the epicenter, and was felt as far away as the capital city of Hilo, 50 km away. While most people think of volcanoes when they think of Hawaii, the state has experienced large earthquakes, and seen their devastating impacts. Additionally, the volcanism and tectonism are closely linked. Because of this, we thought we’d highlight Hawaiian tectonics.

This Temblor map shows the location of yesterday’s M=4.5 earthquake. This map also illustrates how seismically active the Big Island is.


The Hawaiian Islands are the product of what geologists call a “hot spot.” This is where a rising column of magma reaches the earth’s surface, resulting in volcanic eruptions. They are often used to explain volcanism not associated with plate boundaries. As a tectonic plate moves over a hot spot, new islands can be created. For the Hawaiian Archipelago, this has resulted in a chain of 132 islands, seamounts, reefs, atolls, shallow banks, and shoals over a distance of 3,000 kilometers. However, many people only know about the eight main islands that make up the state.

Successive eruptions over the Hawaiian hot spot has resulted in the formation of 132 islands, seamounts, reefs, atolls, shallow banks, and shoals. Today people marvel at the active flows. (Photo from: Pinterest)


Hawaii experiences both small and large earthquakes. The majority of smaller quakes are associated with magma as it moves beneath the surface. Many of these are too small to be felt, and can only be picked up by seismometers. These are often referred to as “volcanic earthquakes.”

However, the larger earthquakes are not directly caused by the flow of magma. As the Hawaiian Islands formed through successive eruptions, the amount of rock at the surface has steadily increased, meaning the weight of the islands is immense. In turn, the region as a whole has subsided, resulting in the formation of normal faults. It is normal faults like this that caused the November 29, 1975 M=7.2 Kalapana earthquake, which is the largest instrumentally recorded earthquake in Hawaii’s history. It should be noted that a M=7.9 earthquake occurred in 1868, though this magnitude is inferred based on felt area.

The weight of newly formed rock has caused the Hawaiian Archipelago to subside, resulting in the formation of normal faults. These faults have caused large earthquakes in the past, including a M=7.2 in 1975. (Photo from: http://1photo1day.com)


Effects from these larger magnitude earthquakes have been significant. Tsunamis up to 15 m high have been generated, shaking has collapsed structures, and people have lost their lives. Therefore, it is not just volcanic eruptions that Hawaiians have to worry about. In addition to locally-sourced hazards, Hawaii can also be affected by distal earthquakes. In 1960, the M=9.5 Valdivia, Chile earthquake over 10,000 km away, generated a tsunami which devastated Hilo and killed 61 people.

This Temblor map shows the tsunami inundation zone around much of Hawaii’s Big Island. Tsunamis have been generated by both local and distal earthquakes. In 1960, the M=9.5 Valdivia, Chile earthquake generated a tsunami which devastated Hilo and killed 61 people.


What all of this shows is that not only volcanism but earthquakes as well have helped shape the Hawaiian Islands. Therefore, the thousands of earthquakes that occur yearly in Hawaii, will hopefully no longer be a surprise.


Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
University of Hawaii
Kuo-Fong Ma, Hiroo Kanamori, and Kenji Satake, Mechanism of the 1975 Kalapana, Hawaii, earthquake inferred from tsunami data, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 104, No. B6, Pages 13,153-13,167, June 10, 1999.

  • Dal Stanley

    I worked on the structures around Kilauea including the lava tubes carrying molten basalt and the big controlling features like those where the quakes are being concentrated on the south side, including the 1975 Kalapana event. Using mainly VLF electromagnetic mapping and quake plotting, I worked with Dallas Jackson USGS who lives now in Waa Waa south of Hilo. What is dangerous is the whole block of basalt below the Hilina Slump which has 1/10th the volume of the island and could slide off into the Pacific. This would cause a several hundred feet high massive wave that would kill lots of people all the way to Australia. Here is a short description of the slump The 1975 M7.2 caused a 45′ high tsunami.