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Late volcanism has also given it a much rougher appearance than its neighboring volcanoes; contributing factors include the construction of cinder cones, the decentralization of its rift zones, the glaciation on its peak, and the weathering effects of the prevailing trade winds.

Mauna Kea last erupted 6,000 to 4,000 years ago and is now considered dormant.

Isotopic composition shows the water present to have been derived from rain coming off Mauna Kea at an elevation higher than 2000 meters above mean sea level.

Its presence is attributed to a freshwater head within Mauna Kea's basal lens.

Donald Thomas, director of the University of Hawaii's Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes believes one reason to continue study of the aquifers is due to use and ‘occupancy’ of the higher elevation areas, stating: "Nearly all of these activities depend on the availability of potable water that, in most cases, must be trucked to the Saddle from Waimea or Hilo — an inefficient and expensive process that consumes a substantial quantity of our scarce liquid fuels.” because of this inactivity, Mauna Kea is assigned a United States Geological Survey hazard listing of 7 for its summit and 8 for its lower flanks, out of the lowest possible hazard rating of 9 (which is given to the extinct volcano Kohala).

Twenty percent of the volcano's summit has seen lava flows in the past 10,000 years, and its flanks have seen virtually no lava flows during that time.

Ancient Hawaiians living on the slopes of Mauna Kea relied on its extensive forests for food, and quarried the dense volcano-glacial basalts on its flanks for tool production.

Hilo Ridge, a prominent underwater rift zone structure east of Mauna Kea, was once believed to be a part of the volcano; however, it is now understood to be a rift zone of Kohala that has been affected by younger Mauna Kea flows.Mauna Kea is about a million years old, and has thus passed the most active shield stage of life hundreds of thousands of years ago.In its current post-shield state, its lava is more viscous, resulting in a steeper profile.Until 1993, artesian water was not known to be present in the Island of Hawaii.Drilling by the University of Hawaii at that time encountered an artesian groundwater aquifer at 300 meters below sea level and 100 meters of hole depth within a compacted layer of soil and lava where the flows of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea meet (Humuula saddle region).

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