GeoScience on the Big Island of Hawaii

A Field Course for High School and College Students

(One Island; 7-8 days, including travel to and from Hawaii)


The “Big Island” of Hawaii is one of Earth’s geological wonders, being the uppermost portion of a merged cluster of some of the planet’s largest and fastest growing volcanic mountains, all sitting in the middle of the planet’s largest tectonic plate. In addition to its obvious exceptional volcanic and associated tectonic aspects, it displays a wide range of geological features resulting from interaction with the planet’s hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere.

The five volcanic mountains that comprise the Hawaii Island complex include three of earth’s four largest mountains, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Hualalai, and perhaps its most active volcano, Kilauea. Yet only about 10 percent of the complex is above sea level, representing the island it self. Amazingly, the island’s oldest volcanic rocks, part of Kohala Mountain, are only 460 thousand years old. Fed from an underlying, confined mantle plume, these rapidly growing mountainous piles of magma merged successively in a complex overlapping manner, all the time being carried northwestward at 3.5 inches a year on the Pacific Tectonic Plate. It’s like no other place on Earth.

And there is more. For example, glacial deposits well displayed above 10,000 feet across the summit plateau of 13,796 ft-high Mauna Kea, represent several stages of late-Pleistocene glaciation – in Hawaii! Huge submarine landslide deposits cover major portions of the volcanic mountains’ submarine slopes and surrounding 16,500-ft deep sea floor. Exposed, above sea level, fault scarps abound along the unstable flanks of Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The incessant growth of coral and stony algal in the island’s surrounding warm subtropical coastal waters has resulted in the development shallow marine reef structures. Erosion, transport and deposition of sediments along the wave-impacted shoreline have resulted in the generation of black, green and white sandy beaches.

The result of these many geologic processes provides an ideal geoscience laboratory. Hawaii’s exemplary weather and ease of access makes it a perfect place to study first hand the many aspects of its varied geology and associated environmental systems. Investigations regarding the island’s volcanic origins provides for a valuable review of the theory of plate tectonics. Close up observations across the island’s varied landscape provide for analyses of geological processes and products relating to the volcano’s interaction with the planet’s hydrosphere (rivers and ocean), atmosphere (climate), and biosphere (plants and animals, including humans). In addition to viewing a wide variety of volcanic rock products, students can check out geologic faults representing major structural failure along the volcano’s growing slopes. They’ll walk through Pleistocene glacial deposits, snorkel among corals of the island’s young fringing reefs and examine and carefully describe its volcanic (black), green (olivine) and white (carbonate) sandy beaches. During the many interactive field trips they examine, probe, describe, question and discuss. The Big Island is a place where geoscience comes to life. It provides for an unforgettable experience.

Sample Itinerary

Day 1: Kilauea Volcano (Volcanoes National Park)
Field trip to Kilauea Volcano, the planet’s most studied and most famous active volcano, currently having erupted continuously since January 1983. A very full day includes views of the summit caldera and east rift zone, examination of major volcanic products such as pahoehoe and aa lava flows, local explosive tephra ash deposits, fissures, pit craters, lava tubes, fault scarps and many more related volcanic features. If the volcano is cooperating, the evening will end with a hike to view reddish-orange, 2000 degree, molten lava flows.

Day 2: Tsunami Museum; Hamakua Coast Road Trip
Morning visit to the Pacific Tsunami Museum (including brief lecture by museum staff) followed by a comprehensive presentation on Hawaii’s overall geologic history. Afternoon road trip along the island’s northeast, Hamakua, coast. Activities to include views of the headward erosion at spectacular 420-ft Akaka Falls (along with an introduction to Hawaii’s unique climate), a continued discussion of Pacific Ocean tsunamis at the memorial on Laupahoehoe Peninsula, and consideration of the instability of Hawaii’s volcanic mountains while viewing the headwall of a giant submarine landslide at scenic Waipio Valley.

Day 3: Mauna Kea Summit (Volcanics and Glacial Deposits)
An all day excursion to the summit region of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s highest mountain (13,796-ft), to examine volcanic products and glacial deposits and to discuss the mountain’s complex geologic and climatic history. The short road trip from wet, humid, sea level Hilo to MK’s dry, high altitude arctic desert setting traverses numerous climatic settings, the products of persistent trade winds encountering the Pacific Ocean’s highest island mountain. While on the summit visits are also made to Lake Waiau, the US’s second highest lake (13,200 ft) and several of the planet’s largest, and most expensive, astronomy observatories.

Day 4: South Point (Black and Green Volcanic Sand Beaches)
Drive to the southern tip of the islands, the southern most point of the United States, to observe the black (volcanic) sand beach at Punaluu and the dramatic fault escarpment at South Point. Hike (2.5 miles) along the scenic, high-energy, wind-swept and wave-impacted southeast coast to examine Hawaii’s world famous green (olivine) sand beach at Mahana Bay (swimming).

Day 5: Puu Oo Trail (Mauna Loa Kipukas; Mauna Kea Cinder Cone)
Drive up to the 6000 ft-high saddle region between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to examined a wide range of kipukas (forest islands) surrounded by Mauna Loa lava flows ranging in age from historic (a few tens of years) to prehistoric (several thousand years). Clearly displayed is the interaction of native Hawaiian forest flora and fauna with the active shield volcano on which it is attempting to become established. Partly quarried Mauna Kea cinder cones also are available for close examination of the mountain’s numerous brief explosive post-shield eruptive events.

Day 6: Hawaii’s Leeward Reef and Associated Beach Systems
Morning lecture – Character and Origin of Hawaiian Reef and Beach Systems, followed by a field trip to examine a wide range of beach systems along the island’s arid, Kona (leeward) coast. Distinct black (volcanic), mixed (black and white), and white (carbonate) sand beaches are well developed within a few hundred yards of each other along this relatively low-energy coastline. Such variation is typical of an active, subtropical volcanic island. The nearshore shallow marine reef setting is examined easily during an afternoon of snorkeling.

Optional Activities
Evening student presentations of mini-research projects.

Lodging in Hilo and Kona, depending on arranged agenda; group transportation provided; all, or most, meals provided, depending on agreement between TEOK Inv. and school group. Air transport to and from Hawaii to be arranged by school group.

Total, on the ground, cost range $1,295 to $1,495 per student, depending on course duration and decisions regarding various logistical arrangements. The variable cost of airline travel to and from Hawaii Island is additional.