Hawaiian volcanoes are formed by the eruption of large quantities of basaltic magma related to hot-spot activity below the Pacific Plate. Despite the apparent simplicity of the parent process - emission of magma onto the oceanic crust - the resulting edifices display some topographic complexity. Certain features, such as rift zones and large flank slides, are common to all Hawaiian volcanoes, indicating similarities in their genesis; however, the underlying mechanism controlling this process remains unknown. Here we use seismological investigations and finite-element mechanical modelling to show that the load exerted by large Hawaiian volcanoes can be sufficient to rupture the oceanic crust. This intense deformation, combined with the accelerated subsidence of the oceanic crust and the weakness of the volcanic edifice/oceanic crust interface, may control the surface morphology of Hawaiian volcanoes, especially the existence of their giant flank instabilities. Further studies are needed to determine whether such processes occur in other active intraplate volcanoes. ??2008 Nature Publishing Group.