Geologist tell us that the Big Island of Hawaii first emerged from the sea about 700,000 years ago yet it rises from it's base in the central Pacific basin higher than any other mountain chain in the world - yes higher even than Everest! If you count the distance that the earth's crust has been pushed down by the enourmous weight of the island, the true height of the island of Hawaii is about 56,000 feet!(An admittedly dubious criteria but if you hear a figure cited in this range, you will know how it was derived.) From the bottom of the ocean, the distance is more like 32,000 feet, and even that makes The Big Island the highest in the world.
The Big Island has another unique claim-to-fame in that the current active cone, Pu'u O'o in the Kilauea
area has been in continuous eruption for 23 years and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. The vent is in a continuous state of destruction and rebuilding and it's elevation changes as magma wells up and subsides in cycles but the generally accepted elevation for the Kilauea area is 4,091'. The elevation of the new cone, Pu'u O'o, literally changes by the day and is about 2,900' at present.
Pu'u O'o is the current active vent on Hawaii. This photo taken from the end of the jungle trail that leads to the peak. (above)
Like the rest of the Hawaiian island chain, The Big Island is a shield volcano, characterized by the hot, fluid lavas that flow down it's broad, relatively gentle slopes, resembling a warrior's shield laying convex side up on the ground.
Besides Kilauea, there are four more distinct volcanos merging to form the inland. The current high point, Mauna Kea
, at 13,796' rises to a summit area studded with an array of major telescopes - and cinder cones. Adjacent, and to the south lies the broad-based Mauna Loa
, at 13,677', currently the largest volcano and also the most massive mountain in the world.
To the NW of Mauna Loa, at 8,271', Hualalai
rises over the town of Kailua-Kona. Last active in 1800-1801 the black landscape of its most recent eruption greets visitors approaching by air into the Kona Airport.
To the NNW of Mauna Kea is the extinct Kohala Mountains at about 5,500'. (no benchmark - had to extrapolate!) Kohala last erupted about 60,000 years ago and likely formed the first land that eventually became the Big Island of Hawaii.
There is now a new volcano erupting on the seafloor a few miles off the south shore of Hawaii called Lohihi. This seamount is currently about 3,000 feet below the sea surface and was last active in 1996. At its present rate of
growth geologists say it will emerge from the sea to become yet another Hawaiian island in about 50,000 years. (Of course, it could also merge with the rest of the island.) This estimate could, of course, change dramatically in short order should the activity accelerate.
Each of the Big Island's mountains are unique and distinct and each presents unique problems to those who would aspire to reach the summits.
In addition to the five major volcanic areas on the island are numerous smaller mountains and hills ("pu'u", in Hawaiian) studding the landscape, the largest of which is the picturesque Pu'u Waawaa on the NE flank of Hualalai.
Pu'u Waawaa on the NE slopes of Hualalai (Hualalai visible on the right horizon.)