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Dating Lava Flows on Mauna Loa Volcano, Hawaiʻi

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 10.21.05
  • NOVA

For hundreds of thousands of years, lava flows have created intricate patterns on the slopes of Hawaiʻi's Mauna Loa volcano. Until the mid-1970s, it was impossible to know when each of the flows occurred. However, as this video segment adapted from NOVA describes, scientists are now using tiny artifacts of life encased in hardened lava flows to piece together the mountain's complex geological and biological history.

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NOVA Dating Lava Flows on Mauna Loa Volcano, Hawaiʻi
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 4m 36s
  • Size: 13.6 MB
  • Level: Grades 3-12

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Source: NOVA: "Hawaiʻi: Born of Fire"

This resource was adapted from NOVA: "Hawaii: Born of Fire."


Flowing lava erases nearly everything in its path. An entire forest can be wiped out by streams of molten rock. In some circumstances however, a flow may encase a small amount of plant material before it is entirely incinerated. Starved of the oxygen required for combustion, these bits of organic material are preserved inside the cooling lava. When geologists find these artifacts, they can use them to date the lava flows that contain them.

Geologists use two main techniques to determine the age of objects they find. Relative- age dating compares past geologic events based on where objects appear relative to one another in layers, or strata, of rock. In contrast, absolute-age dating provides an accurate estimate of an object's actual age. This technique, also called radiometric dating, measures the stage of decay of specific radioactive isotopes contained in the object. Depending on which isotope is analyzed, objects from several billion years old to just a few thousand years old can be accurately dated.

Scientists use radiocarbon dating, a radiometric dating analysis of carbon isotopes, to date objects that are 60,000 years old or less. This technique provides very accurate age estimates of relatively young objects. However, it can only be used to date objects that were once alive. It cannot be used to date rocks, unless those rocks happen to contain organic material.

Radiocarbon dating relies on an understanding that some isotopes of carbon are radioactive and decay at constant rates over time. These unstable isotopes lose particles from their nuclei, thus becoming different elements. Living plants exchange their carbon with the carbon in the air. The air contains mostly carbon-12, the most common carbon isotope. However, it also contains small amounts of other isotopes, including carbon-14, a radioactive isotope produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms. All living plants -- and all organisms that depend on plants -- contain these two isotopes in a known ratio. After an organism's death, its carbon-12 content remains constant. However, its carbon-14 content decreases because carbon-14 is radioactive and slowly decays into nitrogen. Hence, the ratio of the two isotopes changes over time.

The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years, which means that in 5,730 years, half of the original carbon-14 atoms will have changed to nitrogen. Scientists rely on other data sources, such as tree rings, to estimate variations in carbon-14 concentrations over time. They use these estimates to interpret the ratio of carbon-12 and carbon-14 and ultimately to produce an accurate date of death for an organic object.

To learn more about how volcanoes have created the Hawaiian Islands, check out Plate Tectonics: The Hawaiian Archipelago.

Questions for Discussion

    • How do volcanic eruptions affect life on land?
    • How does the scientist determine which lava flows are older?
    • In this video, how old was the plant root? How old is the lava surrounding the plant? Is the lava below this flow younger or older than the plant?
    • What method was used to date the plant remains found in the lava in this video?
    • Why do you think that plants grow so fast on Mauna Loa? What is the significance of learning that the forests are only hundreds of years old rather than thousands of years old? What evidence is there that volcanic soil is more fertile than other soils?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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