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13 Important Facts You Should Know About Mauna Loa

TheTravel logo TheTravel 2/7/2023 Crystal Winston
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Hawaii is known as a peaceful and beautiful haven of untouched nature and laid-back island life. While travelers think of Hawaii as a tourist destination, it is also home to some of nature's most magnificent and volatile creations. But nature has a dark side, and the powerful forces that created these islands are still active today and more fascinating and threatening than most people know. Recently, access to the Mauna Loa summit was closed for safety concerns related to the volcano’s heightened activity. Here are 13 facts about Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii.

UPDATE: 2023/02/05 17:45 EST BY AARON SPRAY

2022 Eruption & More To Know About Mauna Loa

After the writing of this article, there was an eruption of Mauna Loa. This article was updated and expanded to reflect the 2022 eruption and to include more interesting information about Mauna Loa. Fortunately, the 2022 eruption did not result in significant property damage and did not result in the loss of any life.

Is Mauna Loa The Only Volcano On Hawaii Island?

The Island of Hawaii is the largest in the Hawaiian island chain and is made up of five volcanoes: Hualalai, Kilauea, Kohala, Mauna Kea, and Mauna Loa. Thanks to these five sisters, the island is highly volatile. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth, while Kilauea is the most active. The volcanic activity of the island means that lava is frequently ejected and cools in the surrounding ocean, effectively expanding the area of the island over time. Talk about a hot spot.

How Old Is Mauna Loa?

Some scientists have calculated the age of Mauna Loa is between 700,000 and a million years old. This means Mauna Loa has been expanding slowly for thousands of years. Molten rock inside the earth’s core, called magma, is forced to the surface by seismic shifting deep inside the earth. The volcano continually grows by spewing this magma out of various cracks in the surface as hot lava that eventually cools when it reaches the sea. The lava hardens and slowly increases the size of the volcano and the island by gradually creating new land. It’s a slow process, but the age of Mauna Loa means that it has had a lot of time to grow. This explains why its high activity has led to it being the largest volcano.

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How Big Is Mauna Loa?

The name Mauna Loa translates to Long Mountain in English. Mauna Loa is a true sleeping giant. It’s so large that the sea floor under the mountain has sunk by several kilometers under the weight of this rumbling behemoth. The peak extends 4 kilometers above sea level, another 5 kilometers down to the sea floor, and a further 8 kilometers from the seafloor that has buckled under its weight. That’s a whopping 12 kilometers or 56,000 feet of active monster volcano. In terms of area, it’s bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined.

What Lives On Mauna Loa?

An active volcano might sound like an inhospitable place for life to flourish, but that is not the case on Mauna Loa. There are as many vegetation zones on this volcano as there are on the entirety of the Island of Hawaii. As one ascends the mountain below 1,000 feet, the land is characterized by lowland shrubs; between 2,500 feet and 10,000 feet, there are a variety of forest types, and above 10,000 feet, the mountain becomes an alpine stone desert. Mauna Loa is also part of the Mauna Loa-Kilauea Forests Important Bird Area. An array of birds rely on the volcano’s various vegetation zones as part of their life cycles.

Related: Heading To Hawaii Solo? Consider These Destinations First

Is It Possible To Hike Mauna Loa?

Perhaps surprisingly, Mauna Loa is usually open to hikers. It’s part of Volcanoes National Park, which also includes the Kilauea Volcano. Mauna Loa is a much harder hike, with high altitudes, difficult terrain, and dangerous conditions. Only expert hikers should attempt the hike. Because this is an active volcano, hikers need to keep abreast of all warnings and advisories on the mountain. The views at the summit and the experience of one of the unique places on earth are well worth the trek.

How Active Is Mauna Loa?

Over the past 3,000 years, on average, Mauna Loa has erupted about once every six years. However, since the 1800s, that sleeping giant has erupted every five years. The last eruption happened in the Spring of 1984. In 2022, Mauna Loa is experiencing a period of unrest, including swarms of earthquakes and physical changes indicative of a possible eruption (note it did erupt - more on this below). It’s quite difficult for geologists to distinguish between a period of heightened activity and precursors of a major eruption because these indicators look pretty much the same when even under the best scientific analysis.

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How Dangerous Is Mauna Loa?

There are a lot of factors that make Mauna Loa particularly dangerous as an active volcano. The seismic activity associated with one of its eruptions is the most destructive element of an eruption. This is because earthquakes can cause significant damage far away from the volcano and trigger other disasters like tsunamis and landslides, as they did in 1868. The path of lava flows can be estimated, and those in the path can be safely evacuated. But where the lava will emerge is hard to predict, and the speed at which it will flow is determined by a lot of complex factors. In the 1868 eruptions, a fissure opened up on an inland farm, and lava flowed to the sea in just a matter of hours. In 1984, the lava reached within 5 miles of the major city of Hilo before the eruption ended. Because it’s tough to predict an eruption, residents might have a matter of hours to evacuate. Mauna Loa’s mercurial nature and violent potential appear to be its greatest threats to life and property.

Can Scientists Predict Mauna Loa’s Next Eruption?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Scientists can monitor the seismic activity (ground shaking), flows of gasses, and physical changes in the land associated with the volcano. However, there is no easy one-to-one correlation. Periods of intense seismicity (lots of ground shaking), known as “unrest,” don’t always precede an eruption. There may only be a few hours' notice before Mauna Loa’s next eruption. This means that visitors and locals must remain vigilant at all times.

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What Would Happen If Mauna Loa Erupted Today?

It’s tough to know how a volcanic eruption would play out today, given the continuous changes Mauna Loa is constantly undergoing. There are a lot of factors that contribute to the damage caused by a volcano. For example, the slope of a volcano can impact how fast the lava flows, and atmospheric events can impact the direction and impact of the flow of ash and gases. But looking at past recorded eruptions can help anticipate the kind of damage Mauna Loa might cause if it erupted today. In 1868, Mauna Loa erupted, claiming thousands of acres of land in fast-moving lava flows and causing a tsunami and series of earthquakes and landslides that claimed 77 lives. In the last century, only one person has been killed by eruptions on Mauna Loa. 1924, an onlooker was killed by a rock dislodged by the force of the eruption. The 1984 eruption caused no loss of life, and the 2022 eruption was not particularly damaging either.

Would A Bomb Help?

The short answer is...maybe. In general, not much can get in the way of tons of melted rock. However, in 1935, geologists in the US came up with a novel way to stem the flow of lava as it approached the town of Hilo. Shortly after Christmas that year, a team of biplanes was launched with an unconventional mission: to drop 3.6 tons of explosives to close the underground channels from which the lava was oozing. The plan was partially successful. However, a major eruption can’t be completely stopped by this method. These days, there are no plans to use military weapons to mitigate a volcanic eruption. The best plan of action is to prepare for an emergency, monitor the volcano closely, and move people out of harm's way as quickly as possible should an eruption happen. But it is a little disappointing that no one has yet made a Hollywood movie about this plan and how it played out.

Mauna Loa Erupted In 2022

At the end of 2022, Mauna Loa did end up erupting. It erupted for a period of two weeks, and the eruption ended on December 13, 2022. The eruption did not result in any injuries or fatalities and did not cause any major property damage. The lava flows did cross Saddle Road. The result was more or less the best outcome that could have been expected from Mauna Loa erupting. It just goes to show that Mauna Loa is not yet finished its career as an active volcano.

Mauna Loa Is Middle Age

As the tectonic plates very slowly continue to move, Mauna Loa will pass over the Hawaiian Hotspot and will eventually become an extinct volcano. It is thought that Mauna Loa will remain active for another 500,000 to 1 million years. Given that Mauna has been erupting for around 700,000 years, it means it is around middle age.

Mauna Loa Was One Of The Last Discovered Lands

Hawaii was one of the last landmasses ever discovered by mankind. It is thought that the first people, the Polynesians, first started settling the islands around AD 400 - around the time when the Western Roman Empire was in decline. It is thought they settled the islands (including Mauna Loa) sporadically between AD 400 and 1100 (or from the decline of the Western Roman Empire to the end of the Viking Age). After Hawaii, the only other significantly large habitable landmasses left to be discovered and settled were Iceland and New Zealand (there were also small islands and the uninhabitable continent of Antarctica).


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