Ruminations on the Age of Hawaii

I am in the process of reading the book Evolution by Stephen Baxter. It starts 140 million years ago, when dinosaurs were dominating life on earth. It chronicles the crashing of the Yucatan comet into earth, the distinction event of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Now I am here on Maui, and whenever I am here, I am struck by how young these islands are compared to geological ages. I can see the youngness in the land, and still, compared to human history, it is ancient. Being in Hawaii always serves to put me in my place as a human.

The Hawaiian islands were formed by a single hot spot under the Pacific that has been spewing lava for tens of millions of years, while the Pacific plate is moving from east to west. The oldest of the islands are toward the east, the biggest one remaining is Kauai. There are older islands west of Kauai, or remainders of islands, all washed back to the sea. Kauai is 5.1 million years old. That’s all. Oahu is 3 million years old. Maui is 1.32 million years old. The Big Island is only 400,000 years old.

Maui is called the Valley Isle. There are really two major volcanoes on Maui,  the western side is 5700 feet high, and Haleakala is 10,000 feet high. The valley between the two mountains is pronounced and very obvious when looking down from either mountain. Driving from ocean to ocean from the north end of the valley to the south end takes only about 20 minutes. Looking at the water lapping at the edge makes me think how the ocean is biting into the land, foot by foot. I am aware of the fact that it won’t take many feet of sea level rises before this valley is no longer, and Maui becomes two islands. That may take another 50,000 years. Our descendents will see two islands where I only see one right now.

To think that all of Haleakala will be washed into the sea, completely gone, in another 10 million years boggles the mind. 10 million years is nothing in geological terms. To wash a 10,000 foot mountain completely into the sea in 10 million years, the rain and wind only has to erode it by 1 foot every 1,000 years. Quite possible.

In my entire lifetime I just got to catch a small glimpse of land being formed in Hawaii, and being washed away. A blink of an eye only. But I am grateful to have had the chance.

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