The Hawaiian Islands are a tropical paradise, with sandy beaches, azure waters, and swaying palm trees. But these idyllic islands were formed by gigantic volcanoes arising from the seafloor. If you’re wondering what type of volcano is behind the creation of Hawaii, read on to learn all about these gentle giants of volcanism.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Hawaii was formed by shield volcanoes, which are the largest volcanoes on Earth and known for their relatively gentle eruptions of very fluid lava that spreads out in thin layers.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore what shield volcanoes are, how they form, and specifically look at the Hawaiian hotspot that gave rise to the chain of islands we know today. We’ll also overview the unique hazards and benefits of these gentle volcanoes and how scientists study them.

What Are Shield Volcanoes?

Shield volcanoes are a unique type of volcano characterized by their low, broad shape resembling a warrior’s shield. These volcanoes are typically formed by the eruption of highly fluid lava that travels long distances before solidifying. Unlike the explosive eruptions of stratovolcanoes, shield volcanoes have relatively gentle eruptions, with lava flowing steadily down their slopes. This results in the gradual accumulation of layer upon layer of lava, giving these volcanoes their distinctive shape.

Definition and Key Characteristics

Shield volcanoes are primarily composed of basaltic lava, which is low in viscosity and highly fluid. This type of lava allows it to flow easily and cover large areas, creating the wide, gently sloping shape characteristic of shield volcanoes. The lava that erupts from these volcanoes is typically less explosive compared to other types, resulting in a less violent eruption.

One key characteristic of shield volcanoes is their large size. They can be tens of kilometers in diameter and rise several kilometers above the surrounding landscape. These volcanoes are often formed by multiple eruptions over long periods of time, gradually building up their size and shape.

How Shield Volcanoes Form

The formation of shield volcanoes is closely tied to the movement of tectonic plates. In the case of the Hawaiian Islands, for example, shield volcanoes are formed by the movement of the Pacific Plate over a stationary hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. This hotspot releases a constant supply of magma, which rises through the Earth’s crust and erupts as lava at the surface.

As the lava flows out of the volcanic vent, it spreads out in all directions, gradually building up the shield volcano’s broad shape. Over time, repeated eruptions build layer upon layer of lava, resulting in the growth of the volcano. The Hawaiian Islands are a testament to the long-term growth of shield volcanoes, with each island representing a different stage in the formation process.

Famous Examples Around the World

One of the most famous examples of a shield volcano is Mauna Loa in Hawaii. It is one of the largest shield volcanoes on Earth, rising over 13,000 feet above sea level. Mauna Loa is still considered an active volcano, with its most recent eruption occurring in 1984.

Another well-known shield volcano is the Galapagos Islands’ Wolf Volcano. It is the highest peak in the archipelago and is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species. Wolf Volcano is part of the Galapagos hotspot, which has formed many of the islands in the region.

Around the world, there are numerous other examples of shield volcanoes, including the Deccan Traps in India, the Columbia River Basalt Group in the United States, and the Etna volcano in Italy. These volcanoes provide valuable insights into the geological processes that shape our planet.

The Hawaiian Hotspot and Chain of Islands

The Hawaiian Islands are a fascinating archipelago located in the central Pacific Ocean. This stunning chain of islands is a result of the volcanic activity produced by the Hawaiian hotspot. The hotspot is an area of intense volcanic activity that remains stationary while the Pacific tectonic plate moves over it. As the plate moves, it creates a trail of volcanic islands, with the youngest islands formed by the most recent eruptions. These islands are known for their unique shield volcanoes, which give them their distinct shape.

Origins of the Hotspot

The origins of the Hawaiian hotspot can be traced back to deep within the Earth’s mantle. Beneath the Pacific Plate, there is a plume of hot material that rises from the core-mantle boundary. This plume is responsible for the creation of the hotspot and the subsequent formation of the Hawaiian Islands. As the plume reaches the surface, it creates a mantle plume that generates enormous heat and pressure. This leads to the melting of the mantle rock, resulting in the formation of magma chambers beneath the Earth’s crust.

Over millions of years, the Pacific Plate moves over the stationary hotspot, causing the magma chambers to erupt and release lava onto the surface. The continuous eruption and accumulation of lava build up the shield volcanoes that form the Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain

The Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain is a remarkable feature that provides evidence of the movement of the Pacific Plate over the Hawaiian hotspot. This chain extends northwest from the Big Island of Hawaii for over 3,600 kilometers. It consists of a series of underwater volcanoes and seamounts, with the oldest formations located in the northwest and the youngest formations located near the Big Island.

The Emperor Seamount Chain is named after Emperor Seamount, the oldest and most distant seamount from Hawaii. It is estimated to be around 81 million years old. As the Pacific Plate moves, older seamounts become more distant from the hotspot and eventually sink beneath the ocean surface. This process results in the formation of a linear chain of underwater mountains, providing a timeline of volcanic activity and plate movement.

Active Volcanoes of the Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands are home to some of the most active volcanoes in the world. The most famous among them is Kilauea, located on the Big Island. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, making it one of the longest-lasting eruptions in recorded history. It is known for its effusive eruptions, characterized by the slow and steady flow of lava.

Another active volcano on the Big Island is Mauna Loa, which holds the title for being the largest volcano on Earth. While Mauna Loa is currently dormant, it has erupted 33 times since its first well-documented eruption in 1843. These eruptions have produced vast lava flows that have reached the coast and even threatened nearby communities. The last eruption occurred in 1984, and scientists continue to closely monitor its activity.

The Hawaiian Islands are a testament to the power and beauty of volcanic activity. They serve as a reminder of the dynamic nature of our planet and the ongoing processes that shape its surface. Exploring the origins and formation of these islands not only expands our understanding of geology but also provides a glimpse into the fascinating world of volcanoes.

Eruptions and Hazards of Shield Volcanoes

Effusive Eruptions with Fluid Lava

Shield volcanoes are known for their effusive eruptions, where fluid lava flows gently down the slopes of the volcano. This type of eruption occurs when the magma beneath the volcano is low in viscosity, allowing it to flow easily. Unlike explosive eruptions seen in other types of volcanoes, shield volcanoes produce relatively calm and steady lava flows. The fluid lava can travel long distances, creating vast lava fields that can cover hundreds of square kilometers. These eruptions are a testament to the gentle nature of shield volcanoes, earning them their name.

Pyroclastic Eruptions

While shield volcanoes are primarily associated with effusive eruptions, they can also produce pyroclastic eruptions, although these are relatively rare. Pyroclastic eruptions occur when the pressure within the volcano becomes too high, causing the explosive release of gas, ash, and rock fragments. These explosive eruptions can be dangerous, as they can generate ash clouds that rise high into the atmosphere, posing a threat to aviation. However, compared to other types of volcanoes, shield volcanoes generally have less explosive eruptions, making them less hazardous in this regard.

Landslides and Mega-Tsunamis

One of the hazards associated with shield volcanoes is the potential for landslides, which can lead to mega-tsunamis. Due to their gentle slopes, shield volcanoes can become unstable, especially if their flanks are weakened by erosion or seismic activity. When a large portion of the volcano collapses into the ocean, it can trigger a massive tsunami that can travel across great distances, posing a significant threat to coastal areas. Although these events are rare, they highlight the importance of monitoring and understanding the geological processes occurring on shield volcanoes.

Monitoring Active Shield Volcanoes

Given the potential hazards associated with shield volcanoes, it is crucial to monitor their activity closely. Scientists use a variety of techniques to track changes in volcanic activity, including seismometers to detect earthquakes, gas analyzers to measure gas emissions, and satellite imagery to monitor surface deformation. By continuously monitoring active shield volcanoes, scientists can gather valuable data to better understand their behavior and provide early warning systems for potential eruptions and other hazards. Organizations like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) play a crucial role in monitoring and studying shield volcanoes in Hawaii.

Benefits of Shield Volcanoes

Fertile Soil for Agriculture

One of the major benefits of shield volcanoes is the fertile soil they produce. Shield volcanoes, such as those found in the Hawaiian Islands, are composed of layers of lava flows that are rich in nutrients. These nutrient-rich soils provide an excellent foundation for agriculture, allowing farmers to grow a wide variety of crops. The volcanic ash and minerals in the soil contribute to its fertility, making it ideal for cultivating crops like coffee, pineapple, and macadamia nuts. Additionally, the mild climate and abundant rainfall in volcanic regions further enhance agricultural productivity.

Renewable Geothermal Energy

Shield volcanoes also offer the advantage of renewable geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is harnessed by tapping into the heat produced by magma beneath the Earth’s surface. In volcanic regions, such as Hawaii, geothermal power plants utilize this heat to generate electricity. The steam and hot water produced by the volcanic activity are used to power turbines, which then generate clean and sustainable energy. Geothermal energy is a reliable and continuous source of power, making it an attractive alternative to traditional fossil fuels.


The majestic beauty and unique geological features of shield volcanoes attract tourists from all over the world. Visitors are drawn to destinations like the Hawaiian Islands to witness the awe-inspiring volcanic landscapes and experience the vibrant culture. Volcano tourism provides economic benefits to local communities by creating jobs and generating revenue. Tourists can explore lava tubes, hike along volcanic trails, and even witness active eruptions in some cases. The tourism industry surrounding shield volcanoes contributes to the overall economy of the region and helps promote the conservation and preservation of these natural wonders.

Studying and Understanding Shield Volcanoes

Shield volcanoes are fascinating geological formations that play a crucial role in the formation of the Hawaiian Islands. Understanding these gentle giants requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves geologic field work, drilling and instrument monitoring, modeling eruptions and lava flows, and studying their impact on climate and environment.

Geologic Field Work and Mapping

One of the primary methods used to study shield volcanoes is geologic field work and mapping. Scientists venture out into the field to gather data on the volcanic rocks, their composition, and their spatial distribution. By conducting detailed surveys and mapping the different layers and features of the volcano, researchers can gain insights into its formation and evolution. This information is crucial for understanding the dynamics of shield volcanoes and predicting their future behavior.

Drilling and Instrument Monitoring

Drilling into shield volcanoes provides scientists with a unique opportunity to collect samples from deep within the volcano. These samples can be analyzed to determine the chemical composition of the magma chamber and provide valuable insights into the volcanic processes at work. In addition to drilling, instrument monitoring plays a vital role in studying shield volcanoes. Seismic sensors, GPS systems, and gas-monitoring devices are strategically placed to detect any changes in volcanic activity. These instruments provide real-time data that helps scientists monitor volcanic eruptions and understand the underlying processes.

Modeling Eruptions and Lava Flows

Another important aspect of studying shield volcanoes is creating models to simulate eruptions and lava flows. By inputting data from previous eruptions, scientists can develop models that predict the behavior of future eruptions. These models help in understanding the patterns of lava flow, the direction it might take, and the potential hazards it poses to nearby communities. This information is crucial for disaster preparedness and mitigation efforts.

Impact on Climate and Environment

Shield volcanoes have a significant impact on the climate and environment of the regions they inhabit. The volcanic gases emitted during eruptions can have both short-term and long-term effects on the atmosphere. These gases, including sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, can contribute to air pollution and climate change. Additionally, the lava flows and ash deposits can alter the local ecosystems by destroying vegetation and altering the landscape. Understanding the environmental impact of shield volcanoes is crucial for conservation efforts and managing the risks associated with volcanic activity.


The Hawaiian Islands showcase the power of shield volcanoes to create land on a massive scale. Although shield volcanic eruptions are less violently explosive compared to stratovolcanoes, they can still pose serious hazards from lava flows, landslides, and tsunamis. However, these gentle giants also provide many benefits to island communities and economies. By studying shield volcanoes, scientists uncover insights into the inner workings of our dynamic planet. The Hawaiian volcanoes continue to help researchers refine their understanding of how these gentle giants form and evolve over time.

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