Geologic map of the northeast flank of Mauna Loa volcano, Island of Hawai'i, Hawaii

Scientific Investigations Map 2932-A




Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth, has erupted 33 times since written descriptions became available in 1832. Some eruptions were preceded by only brief seismic unrest, while others followed several months to a year of increased seismicity.

The majority of the eruptions of Mauna Loa began in the summit area (>12,000-ft elevation; Lockwood and Lipman, 1987); yet the Northeast Rift Zone (NERZ) was the source of eight flank eruptions since 1843 (table 1). This zone extends from the 13,680-ft-high summit towards Hilo (population ~60,000), the second largest city in the State of Hawaii. Although most of the source vents are farther than 30 km away, the 1880 flow from one of the vents extends into Hilo, nearly reaching Hilo Bay. The city is built entirely on flows erupted from the NERZ, most older than that erupted in 1843.

Once underway, Mauna Loa's eruptions can produce lava flows that reach the sea in less than 24 hours, severing roads and utilities in their path. For example, lava flows erupted from the Southwest Rift Zone (SWRZ) in 1950 advanced at an average rate of 9.3 km per hour, and all three lobes reached the ocean within approximately 24 hours (Finch and Macdonald, 1953). The flows near the eruptive vents must have traveled even faster.

In terms of eruption frequency, pre-eruption warning, and rapid flow emplacement, Mauna Loa poses an enormous volcanic-hazard threat to the Island of Hawai‘i. By documenting past activity and by alerting the public and local government officials of our findings, we can anticipate the volcanic hazards and substantially mitigate the risks associated with an eruption of this massive edifice.

From the geologic record, we can deduce several generalized facts about the geologic history of the NERZ. The middle to the uppermost section of the rift zone were more active in the past 4,000 years than the lower part, perhaps due to buttressing of the lower east rift zone by Mauna Kea and Kīlauea volcanoes. The historical flows that erupted on the north flank of the rift zone, which is more vulnerable to inundation, advanced toward Hilo. Lockwood (1990) noted that the vents of historical activity are migrating to the south. The volcano appears to have a self-regulating mechanism that evenly distributes long-term activity across its flanks. The geologic record also supports this notion; the time prior to the historical period (Age Group 1, orange units, pre-A.D. 1843–1,000 yr B.P.; see map sheet 2) is dominated by activity on the south side of the NERZ.

The NERZ trends N. 65° E. and is about 40 km long and 2–4 km wide, narrowing at the summit caldera. It becomes diffuse (6–7 km wide) at its down-rift terminus, at the approximately 3,400-ft elevation. Its constructional crest is marked by low spatter ramparts and by spatter cones as high as 60 m. Subparallel eruptive fissures and ground cracks cut vent deposits and flows in and near the rift crest. Lava typically flows to the north, east, or south, depending on vent location relative to the rift crest.

Encompassing 1,140 km2 of the northeast flank of Mauna Loa from the 10,880-ft elevation to sea level, the map covers the area from Hilo to Volcano on the east and includes the rift zone from Puu Ulaula quadrangle in the southwest to Hilo in the northeast. The distribution of 105 eruptive units (flows)—separated into 15 age groups ranging from more than 30,000 years B.P. to A.D. 1984—are shown, as well as the relations of volcanic and surficial sedimentary deposits. This map incorporates previously reported work published in generalized small-scale maps (Lockwood and Lipman, 1987; Buchanan-Banks, 1993; Lockwood, 1995; and Wolfe and Morris, 1996).

Suggested Citation

Trusdell, F.A., and Lockwood, J.P., 2017, Geologic map of the northeast flank of Mauna Loa volcano, Island of Hawai'i, Hawaii: Scientific Investigations Map 2932–A, pamphlet 25 p., 2 sheets, scale 1:50,000,

ISSN: 2329-132X (online)

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Geologic map of the northeast flank of Mauna Loa volcano, Island of Hawai'i, Hawaii
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Map
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Volcano Science Center
2 Sheets: 54.66 x 29.17 inches and 46.11 x 28.85 inches; Pamphlet: ii, 25 p.; Data Table; Metadata; Read Me; Geospatial Data
United States
Other Geospatial:
Island of Hawai'i, Mauna Loa Volcano