Kilauea vs. Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa provides a picturesque backdrop above Kilauea’s crater. Credit: Zahra Hirji. Mauna Loa provides a picturesque backdrop above Kilauea’s crater. Credit: Zahra Hirji.

In the 19th century, Mauna Loa was the most active volcano in the world. Today, Kilauea is the star. Tourism agencies, journalists, civil defense, and even U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) geologists have played a role in funneling public attention toward the Big Island’s youngest volcano. Consequently, some people ignore the other volcanic threats on the island, including Mauna Loa. Without knowing the differences between the two volcanoes, people walk away thinking that if they have seen and interacted with one, they know them all.

But this is a misconception. Mauna Loa flows are the hare to the Kilauea flows’ tortoise. The latter can take two to three weeks to reach the ocean, whereas it took the Mauna Loa flows from a massive 1950 eruption just 3.5 hours to travel a similar distance. “What Mauna Loa was putting out in twenty minutes is what [Kilauea’s crater] Pu'u 'O'o puts out in a whole day,” says HVO geologist Frank Trusdell.

Additionally, although Kilauea in recent decades has smothered entire communities, such as Royal Gardens, Kalapana and Kapoho, none of those communities compares to Hilo in terms of population or critical infrastructure.

Zahra Hirji

Hirji is a reporter for the online publication InsideClimate News and a former EARTH editorial intern. Last year, she earned a master’s in science writing from MIT; this article is based on her graduate thesis. Hirji volunteered as a Kilauea geologist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory during the summer of 2010.

Monday, September 1, 2014 - 02:00