Five times within the past 138 yr (1852, 1855-1856, 1880-1881, 1942, and 1984), lava flows from vents on the northeast rift zone of Mauna Loa Volcano have reached within a few kilometres of Hilo (the largest city on the Island of Hawaii). Most lavas erupted on this rift zone in historical time have traveled northeastward (toward Hilo), because their eruptive vents have been concentrated north of the rift zone's broad topographic axis. However, with few exceptions each successive historical eruption on the northeast rift zone has occurred farther southeast than the preceding one. Had the 1984 eruptive vents (the most southeasterly yet) opened less than 200 m farther southeast, the bulk of the 1984 lavas would have flowed away from Hilo. If this historical vent-migration pattern continues, the next eruption on the northeast rift zone could send lavas to the southeast, toward less populated areas.

The historical Mauna Loa vent-migration patterns mimic the southeastern "younging" of the Hawaiian-Emperor volcanic chain and may be cryptically related to northwestward movement of the Pacific plate. Systematic temporal-spatial vent-migration patterns may characterize eruptive activity at other volcanoes with flank activity and should be considered as an aid to long-term prediction of eruption sites.

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