May 2, 2018||Big Island: Weather and Nature

Understanding Hawaii Island’s Lava Zones

Originally posted May 2, 2018.
Last updated in January 2019. 

Near the geographical center of the Pacific Ocean, almost halfway between the mainland US and Japan, lies a tropical island paradise known as the Hawaiian Islands. But through its very creation, this tropical paradise has a history of fire and fury. Formed over a period of millions of years, all from a single volcanic hotspot, the Hawaiian Islands were born from molten lava from deep below the Pacific Ocean that surrounds them. As the islands gradually moved with the Pacific Plate below it, new islands were formed from this volcanic hotspot. The entire island chain still moves up to four inches a year towards the northwest.

The oldest of the most well-known islands is Kauai, followed by Oahu, the islands of Maui, and the newest, Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island. Today, there are five Hawaii volcanoes that are considered active, though some have been sleeping for over a century now: Haleakala (Maui) last erupted in 1790, Hualalai (Hawaii) last erupted in 1801, Mauna Loa (Hawaii) last erupted in 1984, Kilauea (Hawaii), which continually erupted from 1983 until late 2018, and Lo’ihi, which is underwater off the coast of Hawaii Island.

The 1992 USGS Lava Hazard Zones Map

USGS Lava Hazard Zones 1992

First developed by the USGS in 1974, and last revised in 1992, lava hazard zone maps were initially developed with the purpose of helping local communities in planning and locating critical facilities in areas considered to be safest. There are nine zones in all—Lava Zone 1 through 9—and each zone has a particular meaning for the potential hazard. As the numbers increase the hazard decreases. The map uses historical data such as past eruptions, the topography of the island (making the boundaries approximate), projected paths of a lava flow, and even stories handed down over generations. Scientists still constantly monitor the active lava flows to better understand and predict what we as residents can expect in the short term.

Buyers of real estate on Hawaii Island should be aware of these potential hazards and that there may some limitations for home financing or construction loans, as well as homeowners insurance in some zones. Your real estate agent should be able to help you determine the lava zone in which a property is located.


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