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Spooky: Story comes out on how Hawaii is sinking day before the earthquake

User ID: 137330
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10/16/2006 03:21 PM
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Spooky: Story comes out on how Hawaii is sinking day before the earthquake
this story came out saturday

[link to sfgate.com]

Kiss that Hawaiian timeshare goodbye
Scientists say islands will someday vanish
David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Saturday, October 14, 2006

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Slowly, slowly, the Big Island of Hawaii is sinking toward its doom. From its palm-fringed beaches to the summit of Mauna Kea, 13,796 feet high, nothing will remain of that volcanic island but a small, stony lump on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in the far northwest, thousands of miles from where it stands today.

And then it will disappear completely, swallowed into the Earth's heaving crust.

Scientists in Berkeley and elsewhere say Hawaii's fate -- some 80 million years into the future -- is a certainty not just for the Big Island, but for all the major Hawaiian islands and a string of smaller, related islets that dot the ocean toward the northwest for 1,500 miles.

As those islands vanish one by one, new volcanoes will rise from the seabed where Hawaii is now; and ultimately, those too will move northwestward and shrink beneath the waves, just as if a massive undersea conveyor belt were carrying them along from birth to oblivion.

This sad end to the tropical islands as we know them is being revealed in a geologic saga playing out deep on the ocean floor. It is there that one huge moving slab of the Earth's crust, called the Pacific plate, moves the islands along toward their fate a few inches each century.

And it is there that a great "hot spot" of magma, created by the fiery heat of the deep Earth's core 1,800 miles beneath the seabed, is fueling the replacement islands with magma, while the massive plate itself is twisting slowly toward the west.

The Berkeley scientists and their many colleagues have chronicled these island and plate movements with data painstakingly acquired by researchers at the Berkeley Geochronology Center, aboard research vessels roaming the far Pacific, at the U.S. Geological Survey's paleomagnetism lab in Menlo Park, and at Stanford and many other research centers.

"The islands," said Warren Sharp, a geochemist at the geochronology lab in Berkeley, "are all just passively riding on that Pacific plate. The moving hot spot formed them, the plate carries them, and over time they will all disappear."

Sharp and David Clague, a marine geologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, reported on new clues to the process in a recent issue of the journal Science.

And earlier, geophysicist David Scholl of Stanford and the USGS led a research group concluding that the great "Hawaiian Hot Spot" is not fixed in one place, as scientists previously believed, but actually moved southward between 47 million and 81 million years ago.

"This finding," Scholl said, "will break across a cherished idea about how things work in the innards of the Earth."

The reports add fresh insights into the dynamic behavior of the entire Earth's crust, where vast tectonic plates are constantly moving against each other to cause volcanoes, earthquakes and the formation of new land masses.

When the Hawaiian Islands disappear in the distant future, they won't be the first to go, for they are just one part of a long chain of volcanoes that rose from the Pacific floor and vanished, one after another, over millions of years.

For example, Midway Island, part of the Hawaiian chain, was once a volcano, too. Now it is only a coral atoll barely above sea level, with two small, flat islands that held Navy runways during World War II. They, too, will vanish one day.

From Hawaii, the islands of the Hawaiian chain stretch northwestward for more than 1,500 miles, with each island eroding and shrinking into the sea floor in turn until they become merely low rocky reefs, and more flat atolls, barely above the surface.

Beyond the atolls, at the end of what's called the Hawaiian Ridge, the chain becomes completely submerged and then bends in a mysterious kink to continue due north for another 2,200 miles, forming an even longer string of totally submerged islands known as the Emperor Seamounts.

When and how that kink in the seamounts developed has long been a major puzzle to scientists who study the dynamic movements of the Earth's crust, but answers are now appearing.

Sharp and Clague reported in Science recently that the mysterious bend in the Emperor Seamount chain is about 50 million years old, and probably took at least 8 million years to develop. They based their calculations using the Berkeley Geochronology Center's newest high-tech methods for dating ancient rocks based on the decay rates of the element argon's radioactive forms.

Part of the Pacific plate appears to be moving too, they say. It twists clockwise ever so slowly, forcing the chain to bend and pointing the line of sunken islands due north. The plate's motions have been dated by changes in the orientation of magnetic particles frozen into the crustal rocks over millions of years.

Back at the Big Island of Hawaii, there's movement, too. While the Kilauea volcano is still building, as soon as the Big Island's other volcanoes have stopped erupting, they started to lose height, Sharp said, "and the entire island is now sinking about 1 foot every hundred years as the Pacific Plate bows down under the weight of the volcanoes on it."

But already, only 15 miles southeast of Kilauea, the Hawaiian Hot Spot is pushing up magma to form a new volcanic island. It is named Loihi, and its summit is still more than 3,000 feet below sea level, so it is technically still a seamount. But swarms of earthquakes show the island is active and growing, and if it continues erupting as often as Kilauea and Mauna Kea have, it will rise above the sea surface as a brand-new Hawaiian island in a "few tens of thousands of years," according to scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Midway, the coral atoll, is 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii and is the oldest in the Hawaiian part of the chain, formed about 28 million years ago. Then there are the strings of other islands and atolls between Hawaii and Midway, each one a little older than the other -- like Necker Island, 657 miles from Kilauea and 10 million years old; French Frigate Shoals, 740 miles away and 12 million years old; and Laysan, 1,130 miles from the Big Island and 20 million years old -- according to dates estimated by Clague and Brent Dalrymple, a retired geophysicist from the USGS in Menlo Park and Oregon State University in Corvallis.

The entire chain of Emperor Seamounts and Hawaiian islands, tens of millions of years old, consists of at least 129 volcanoes, according to Sharp and Clague; together, they stretch for more than 3,700 miles north toward the deep-sea region between Siberia and Alaska known as the Aleutian Trench.

And there the chain ends. The islands and seamounts vanish forever as the Pacific plate that has carried them north dives 25,000 feet deep into the trench's great arc in an earthquake-generating process called subduction. There the Pacific plate is butting up against the last remnants of the North American plate, and that is where Hawaii, and Loihi too, will ultimately die, after riding the great conveyor belt around the seamounts' bend for 80 million years.

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Anonymous Coward
User ID: 98008
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10/16/2006 03:31 PM
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Re: Spooky: Story comes out on how Hawaii is sinking day before the earthquake
This is nothing new. What do you see when you look at the other Hawaiin Islands? They're all sinking and eroding all the time...

But the irony is noted considering the timing of the article and the EQ....

MAP 2.7 2006/10/15 21:45:39 20.014 -155.783 10.9 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.7 2006/10/15 21:30:25 20.625 -156.681 7.0 MAUI REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 21:08:10 19.924 -155.989 12.0 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 4.2 2006/10/15 20:35:21 20.085 -155.965 9.9 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.7 2006/10/15 20:20:27 20.834 -156.643 5.4 MAUI REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.6 2006/10/15 20:11:14 19.910 -155.920 11.7 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 3.2 2006/10/15 19:57:45 19.852 -155.871 16.3 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 3.1 2006/10/15 19:29:54 20.612 -156.248 7.0 MAUI REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.8 2006/10/15 19:19:52 20.175 -155.962 7.8 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.6 2006/10/15 19:17:38 19.844 -155.987 40.8 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 18:45:06 20.744 -156.356 7.0 MAUI REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 18:39:39 19.873 -155.626 0.0 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.7 2006/10/15 18:34:47 19.943 -156.079 15.3 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.9 2006/10/15 18:23:05 19.934 -156.020 11.1 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 3.6 2006/10/15 18:20:00 19.826 -155.826 12.6 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.6 2006/10/15 18:14:53 19.770 -155.773 30.3 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.6 2006/10/15 18:10:44 19.811 -155.997 42.8 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 18:04:31 19.950 -156.020 16.4 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 17:56:27 19.855 -155.895 9.6 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 3.1 2006/10/15 17:53:39 19.884 -155.957 9.0 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.9 2006/10/15 17:50:29 20.015 -155.946 2.8 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 3.1 2006/10/15 17:45:43 20.879 -156.894 7.0 MAUI REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.6 2006/10/15 17:38:35 19.938 -156.030 13.4 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 2.5 2006/10/15 17:35:57 19.918 -155.953 16.9 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 3.1 2006/10/15 17:33:52 19.846 -156.178 37.6 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 3.2 2006/10/15 17:30:02 20.150 -155.877 16.1 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 3.6 2006/10/15 17:29:05 19.895 -155.871 17.6 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 2.8 2006/10/15 17:27:35 19.868 -155.834 9.4 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII
MAP 5.8 2006/10/15 17:14:12 20.129 -155.985 19.0 HAWAII REGION, HAWAII
MAP 6.6 2006/10/15 17:07:49 19.880 -155.937 39.2 ISLAND OF HAWAII, HAWAII