Geology of Kalaupapa

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The Land

Kalaupapa. Translated, it means "the flat plain" or "the flat leaf". As you step off an airplane at Kalaupapa airport and turn to look towards the cliffs, or look down at the peninsula from topside Molokai, you understand how the Hawaiian place name describes this land. The peninsula appears to be an afterthought. It seems "stuck" to the rest of the island, at the base of sheer cliffs, like a thumb to the rest of your hand.

Kalaupapa Peninsula from a 1977 high altitude aerial photo.

Kalaupapa Peninsula from a 1977 high altitude aerial photo.

NPS photo

Indeed, the peninsula was formed much later than the rest of the island. Moloka`i was formed by two shield volcanoes, Mauna Loa to the west and Kamakou to the east. The north coast of the eastern half of the island faces the ocean with sheer cliffs, the result of a giant landslide more than 400,000 years ago. Deep, steep valleys were subsequently cut into the cliffs by stream erosion. At Kalaupapa, three valleys, Waikolu, Wai`ale`ia and Waihanau are bordered on three sides by cliffs 1,600 to 4,000 feet high.


Kauhako Crater.

NPS photo.

About 230,000 years ago, long after Mauna Loa and Kamakou became extinct, another small shield volcano rose from the sea floor and joined against the north cliffs. This volcano, named Pu`u `Uao, formed a relatively flat triangle of land through continuous flows of pahoehoe lava. The Kalaupapa Peninsula is two miles from the cliffs to the tip, and two-and-one-half miles in width at the base of the cliffs, an area approximately five square miles. The rim of the volcano remnant rises over 450 feet, forming Kauhako Crater with a crater lake at the bottom more than 800 feet deep. The Park Service recently conducted an exploration into the crater. Learn more about what they found.


On the peninsula, median annual rainfall has a range of less than 25 inches up to 75 inches. The Pu`u Ali`i-`Ohi`ale Plateau and Waikolu Valley are the wettest spots within the park, and has a perennial fresh water stream. Average humidity ranges between 55 and 90 percent, while temperature ranges average between 60 and 85 degrees. Because Kalaupapa Peninsula is on the windward side of Moloka`i, the tradewinds from the northeast blow almost incessantly across the peninsula. The average wind speed is 15 miles per hour.


Waikolu Stream.

NPS photo.

But it is the scenery that catches your breath. All of the elements come together—the cliffs, ocean, blue sky in summer, rainbows in the mist and dramatic waterfalls in winter—to form a spectacular backdrop for human and natural history. Kalaupapa is home not only for people, but for threatened and endangered native Hawaiian plants and animals as well.

Did You Know?