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Volcanoes at Hotspots

Volcanism within oceanic or continental plates can occur above hotspots.

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Volcanoes at Hotspots

Hawaii is a hotspot, or is it a hot spot?

Both, actually. Hawaii is definitely a hot vacation spot, particularly for honeymooners. The Hawaiian Islands are formed from a hotspot beneath the Pacific Ocean. Volcanoes grow above the hotspot. Lava flows down the hillsides and some of it reaches the ocean, causing the islands to grow. Too hot now, but a great place in the future for beach lovers!

Intraplate Volcanoes

Although most volcanoes are found at convergent or divergent plate boundaries, intraplate volcanoes may be found in the middle of a tectonic plate. These volcanoes rise at a hotspot above a mantle plume. Melting at a hotspot is due to pressure release as the plume rises through the mantle.

Earth is home to about 50 known hotspots. Most of these are in the oceans because they are better able to penetrate oceanic lithosphere to create volcanoes. But there are some large ones in the continents. Yellowstone is a good example of a mantle plume erupting within a continent.

Map of hotspots around the world

Prominent hotspots of the world.

Pacific Hotspots

The South Pacific has many hotspot volcanic chains. The hotspot is beneath the youngest volcano in the chain and older volcanoes are found to the northwest. A volcano forms above the hotspot, but as the Pacific Plate moves, that volcano moves off the hotspot. Without its source of volcanism, it no longer erupts. The crust gets cooler and the volcano erodes. The result is a chain of volcanoes and seamounts trending northwest from the hotspot.

The Society Islands are the exposed peaks of a great chain of volcanoes that lie on the Pacific Plate. The youngest island sits directly above the Society hotspot (Figure below).

Map of the Society Islands

(a) The Society Islands formed above a hotspot that is now beneath Mehetia and two submarine volcanoes. (b) The satellite image shows how the islands become smaller and coral reefs became more developed as the volcanoes move off the hotspot and grow older.

The most famous example of a hotspot in the oceans is the Hawaiian Islands. Forming above the hotspot are massive shield volcanoes that together create the islands. The lavas are mafic and have low viscosity. These lavas produce beautiful ropy flows of pāhoehoe and clinkery flows of a'a, which will be described in more detail in Effusive Eruptions.

Continental Hotspots

The hotspots that are known beneath continents are extremely large. The reason is that it takes a massive mantle plume to generate enough heat to penetrate through the relatively thick continental crust. The eruptions that come from these hotspots are infrequent but massive, often felsic and explosive. All that's left at Yellowstone at the moment is a giant caldera and a very hot spot beneath.

Hotspot Versus Island Arc Volcanoes

How would you be able to tell hotspot volcanoes from island arc volcanoes? At island arcs, the volcanoes are all about the same age. By contrast, at hotspots the volcanoes are youngest at one end of the chain and oldest at the other.


  • Volcanoes grow above hotspots, which are zones of melting above a mantle plume.
  • Hotspot volcanoes are better able to penetrate oceanic crust, so there are more chains of hotspot volcanoes in the oceans.
  • Shield volcanoes commonly form above hotspots in the oceans.


  1. What causes melting at a hotspot?
  2. Why are there a relatively large number of hotspots in the Pacific Ocean basin?
  3. Why do you think there are so many hotspots at mid-ocean ridges; e.g. four along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and two at the East Pacific Rise?

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Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. How far is Hawaii from the nearest convergent plate boundary?
  2. How does a hotspot get through the Pacific plate?
  3. How do scientists know that the hotspot doesn't move?
  4. Why does an older volcano cease volcanic activity?
  5. What has happened to Oahu? How much was lost?


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mantle plume A zone of hot material that rises toward the surface from deeper in the mantle and can generate hotspots.

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