One of the best things about Hawai’i is that it puts me in my place. I love the islands, and I love even more marveling about them.
The islands are one of the most remote places on earth. It takes six hours by plane from the nearest mainland, California, to get here. There is no land in between. And once here, there is no other land in any direction closer than that. We’re in the middle of the Pacific, as far away from any land as you can get.
As the islands formed, only one new species of animal was added every 10,000 years, since it was so difficult for life to get here. Driftwood carried insects and seeds, and occasional storms carried birds. Of course, that all changed when humans started coming here a thousand years ago.
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.
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. Proto humans already walked the earth and came out into the savannahs in Africa when the Big Island was formed.
And now, Lo’ihi is an active submarine volcano located about 22 miles off the southeast coast of the Big Island. Its top is now about 3,000 feet below sea level. When it finally reaches the surface, it will be the next Hawaiian island as the other ones slide northeast.
Maui is called the Valley Isle. There are really two major volcanoes on Maui, the western side is 5,700 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. Every time I drive that stretch I am aware that this land will be under water in the not too distant future. It won’t take many feet of sea level rise before this valley ocean, and Maui becomes two islands. Our descendants will see two islands where I only see one. The only question is, will it be my grandchildren, or will it be another 50,000 years?
To think that all of Haleakala will be washed into the sea, completely gone, in another 10 million years boggles my mind. Ten 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. This puts my human lifespan into perspective and lets me understand how long a span of 10 million years actually is.
Watching time shape Hawaii reminds me of a quote in a John Denver song: I have to say it now, it’s been good life all in all, it’s really fine to have a chance to hang around.