Kaua'i is a modest island by Hawai'i standards, covering only 553 square miles, fourth in size after Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. Unlike the other islands, it was principally a single basaltic shield instead of four or five like the Big Island and Maui (it's a little more complicated than that, but I will deal with that story later in another post). It's also the oldest of the major islands, at about 5-6 million years. The coastal areas of the island are of mostly gentle topography, but on the northwestern side of the island, that gentleness ends. Dramatic cliffs 3,000 feet high drop precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. Welcome to the Na Pali. Why are these incredible cliffs here? And what does that have to do with disaster?
The islands may feel permanent and unchanging in some ways. The lava flows that emerged from the shield were solid and hard and one might feel that they would not be easily eroded or altered by time. That's a delusion, of course. The volcanic rocks were originally deposited on the sediments of the seafloor, and many of the original lava flows were composed of relatively unconsolidated rock, small cinders and ash layers that are not nearly so solid as the lava flows above. The sheer weight of the overlying lava flows exerted such tremendous stress on the unconsolidated rocks that they destabilized and commenced slowly giving way in a lateral sense. The flanks of the island were weakening.
Maybe there weren't any warning signs. I find that to be less convincing, but maybe the end came suddenly, with no precursors. It didn't matter then, but we'd sure like to know today what transpired, because it would be nice to have some warning when an unimaginable tragedy is about to strike.
So first, a huge portion of the island sinks into the ocean, and then the water rises in response and sweeps across vast swaths of Kaua'i and the other Hawaiian islands. The level of destruction is incomprehensible. How many species went extinct that day? No one can ever say. Where a coastal plain once existed, there were only cliffs. Immense cliffs. In time, vegetation returned, and erosional processes sculpted the escarpment into the beautiful fluted cliffs we see today along the Na Pali coastline.
One immediately has to wonder whether it could happen again. The answer is, of course, sure. But these events thankfully don't happen often, maybe once every 300,000-400,000 years. And for now, knowing they have happened in the past, we'll perhaps recognize some of the warning signs that such a slide is again imminent. For the time being, we can instead appreciate the beauty that emerges from catastrophe.
geology and history of the Hawaiian Islands, based in part on our summer field studies journey of last June.