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The Hawai'i-Emperor chain of seamounts (volcanoes resting on the ocean floor) stretches from its active end at the Big Island of Hawai'i west and north across the Pacific Ocean floor to the Aleutian trench near the Kamchatka Peninsula (first figure). There are about 110 individual volcanoes in the Hawai'i-Emperor chain (see the data table), which is about 6000 km (3800 miles) long altogether. The Hawai'i-Emperor chain is divided into two segments, the WNW-trending Hawai'ian chain and the N-trending Emperor chain. The two chains meet at a prominent bend, around the underwater seamounts Daikakuji and Yuryaku.

The active end (youngest end) of the Hawai'i-Emperor chain is at the Big Island of Hawai'i and the offshore, still underwater volcano Loihi. Kilauea volcano on the Big Island is active today, and other centers on the Big Island and on Maui have erupted recently. As one progresses towards the west-northwest, the volcanoes of the Hawai'ian Islands get progressively older (see data table). Once active volcano building through eruptions of lava ceases, the erosional forces of tropical weathering, landslides, river erosion, and wave action overcome the island, and erodes it down to sea level (second figure). The extinct volcano evolves to a flat-topped mesa ringed by coral reefs, and then to an atoll with nothing but the circular reef showing. Finally the volcano sinks beneath the waves, and becomes an underwater seamount.

The Hawai'i-Emperor chain is a classic example of a hot spot track. The standard explanation begins with a hot spot whose source of magma is rooted deep in the Earth's mantle. The hot spot magma source is thought to be fixed in the deeper mantle, with a slab of ocean crust and uppermost mantle (called a plate) moving laterally above the hot spot. As the Pacific Plate moves over the Hawai'ian hot spot, magma punches up through the Pacific Plate, creating an active volcano. Plate motion carries the active volcano away from the magma source, the volcano goes extinct, and a new volcano grows over the hot spot. As the extinct volcano is carried farther and farther from the hot spot source, the volcano sinks beneath the waves mostly due to aging and cooling of the ocean crust underneath the extinct volcano; this cooling causes subsidence of the ocean floor.

Hot spot tracks are very important geologic features for determining both the direction and speed of the plate upon which the seamounts rest The direction of plate motion is given by the orientation of the chain of seamounts and volcanoes. The plate "moves towards the oldest volcano." As can be seen in the first figure, the Pacific Plate moved almost due north during "Emperor time" (from 75 to 42 million years ago), and then changed direction about 42 million years ago (the age of the volcanoes at the bend in the chain), to move west-northwest during "Hawai'i time" (from 42 Ma to the present). Note that the azimuths cited here assume no rotation of the Pacific Plate during the last 75 Ma.

Hot spot tracks also give the speed of plate motion, if the length of the chains of volcanoes and seamounts, and the ages of the volcanoes and seamounts are known (data table). Plates typically move about 1-10 cm/year, which is equivalent to 10-100 km/Ma (kilometers per million years). These speeds are about the rates at which fingernails grow, and may seem rather slow on the human time scale, but are very fast on the geological time scale. The Earth is 4.55 billion years old; one million years is a brief moment in Earth time. The speed of the North American plate (for example) is fairly typical for plates, about 6 cm/year, whereas the Marianas plate is one of the fastest (today), moving about 13 cm/year.

Distances from the active Kilauea volcanic center (measured parallel to the Hawai'i-Emperor chain) and ages of each volcano and seamount are given in the data table (Clague and Dalrymple 1989). These data have been compiled from a wide variety of sources and researchers, which can introduce uncertainties. For example, different geochronologic laboratories determined the ages of the volcanic rocks from these seamounts, and different labs often use different machines, different standards, and different analytical techniques. Even with the highest quality of work, the ages have uncertainties which vary from sample to sample. Furthermore, volcanoes do not have a single age; a typical Hawai'ian volcano builds up over half a million years or more. Who is to say that the volcanic rocks dredged up from the underwater seamount Jingu (for example) are representative of Jingu's eruptive history? It is very difficult to sample Jingu's older rocks; they are covered by the young lavas. The data in the table are not without problems, and students should not simply accept the data at face value.

Complete an investigation of the Hawai'i-Emperor Volcanic Chain.

Copy the data table below to an Excel Spreadsheet. or use this link

Fit both a linear regression to the entire Hawai'i-Emperor chain, to find the "typical" rate of Pacific Plate motion over the last 65 Ma. Do this numerically using Excel. Include the units of slope and intercept in their equations, and explore and affirm that these parameters have real, physical meaning. Discuss the relationship seen. What are the regressions correlation coefficients? What do they mean?

For the second part of their exercise,  fit a regression to both the Hawai'i chain and the Emperor chain separately. Has the Pacific Plate sped up or slowed down over the last 65 Ma? Are the two regressions are significantly different, and how sure are you of this? Discuss and compare the two relationships, including the graphs, correlation coefficients, R2, and the equations. Test the equations by making some interpolation and extrapolation predictions

A change in speed from the older part of the chain to the younger part of the chain seems reasonable from the data. Must a change in speed accompany a change in direction? Must this change in speed happen exactly at the bend, 42 Ma ago? How could we determine when this change in speed actually took place?

Data Source: Clague DA and Dalrymple BG (1989), Tectonics, geomorphology and origin of the Hawaiian-Emperor volcanic chain; in Winterer EL, Hussong DM and Decker RW (eds.), The Eastern Pacific Ocean and Hawaii; Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado; The Geology of North America, Volume N, pp. 188-217.

 Distance versus Age for the Hawai'i-Emperor Chain data from Clague and Dalrymple (1989) best known volcano age in millions of years (Ma) distance from Kilauea measured along the chain for discussion of uncertainties, see original sources Data set excel & csv version volcano volcano age distance age ± distance ± number name (Ma) (km) (Ma) (km) 1 Kilauea 0.20 0 0.20 1.5 3 Mauna Kea 0.38 54 0.05 1.8 5 Kohala 0.43 100 0.02 2.0 6 East Maui 0.75 182 0.04 2.5 7 Kahoolawe 1.03 185 0.18 2.5 8 West Maui 1.32 221 0.04 2.7 9 Lanai 1.28 226 0.04 2.7 10 East Molokai 1.76 256 0.07 2.9 11 West Molokai 1.90 280 0.06 3.0 12 Koolau 2.60 339 0.10 3.3 13 Waianae 3.70 374 0.10 3.5 14 Kauai 5.10 519 0.20 4.2 15 Niihau 4.89 565 0.11 4.5 17 Nihoa 7.20 780 0.30 5.6 20 unnamed 1 9.60 913 0.80 6.3 23 Necker 10.30 1058 0.40 7.1 26 La Perouse 12.00 1209 0.40 7.9 27 Brooks Bank 13.00 1256 0.60 8.2 30 Gardner 12.30 1435 1.00 9.1 36 Laysan 19.90 1818 0.30 11.1 37 Northampton 26.60 1841 2.70 11.3 50 Pearl & Hermes 20.60 2291 0.50 13.6 52 Midway 27.70 2432 0.60 14.4 57 unnamed 2 28.00 2600 0.40 15.3 63 unnamed 3 27.40 2825 0.50 16.5 65 Colahan 38.60 3128 0.30 18.1 65a Abbott 38.70 3280 0.90 18.9 67 Daikakuji 42.40 3493 2.30 20.0 69 Yuryaku 43.40 3520 1.60 20.1 72 Kimmei 39.90 3668 1.20 20.9 74 Koko 48.10 3758 0.80 21.4 81 Ojin 55.20 4102 0.70 23.2 83 Jingu 55.40 4175 0.90 23.6 86 Nintoku 56.20 4452 0.60 25.1 90 Suiko 1 59.60 4794 0.60 26.9 91 Suiko 2 64.70 4860 1.10 27.2