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Lava eruptions from Mauna Loa are silica-poor and very fluid, and they tend to be non-explosive.Mauna Loa has probably been erupting for at least 700,000 years, and may have emerged above sea level about 400,000 years ago.Mauna Loa's summit is also the focal point for its two prominent rift zones, marked on the surface by well-preserved, relatively recent lava flows (easily seen in satellite imagery) and linearly arranged fracture lines intersected by cinder and splatter cones.The first is a 60 km (37 mi) rift trending southwest from the caldera to the sea and a further 40 km (25 mi) underwater, with a prominent 40° directional change along its length; this rift zone is historically active across most of its length.

Simplified geophysical models of Mauna Loa's magma chamber have been constructed, using interferometric synthetic aperture radar measures of ground deformation due to the slow buildup of lava under the volcano's surface.In addition, much of the mountain is invisible even underwater: its mass depresses the crust beneath it by another 8 km (5 mi), in the shape of an inverse mountain, Mauna Loa is a typical shield volcano in form, taking the shape of a long, broad dome extending down to the ocean floor whose slopes are about 12° at their steepest, a consequence of its extremely fluid lava.The shield-stage lavas that built the enormous main mass of the mountain are tholeiitic basalts, like those of Mauna Kea, created through the mixing of primary magma and subducted oceanic crust.The second, northeastern rift zone extends towards Hilo and is historically active across only the first 20 km (12 mi) of its length, with a nearly straight and, in its latter sections, poorly defined trend.The northeastern rift zone takes the form of a succession of cinder cones, the most prominent of which the 60 m (197 ft) high Puu Ulaula, or Red Hill.

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