On 2 April 1868, an earthquake occurred which destroyed all stone buildings in southern Hawaii. It was felt on Kauai Island at 600 km, and ground shaking of intensity VII was reported up to 130 km distance. Based on the magnitude versus felt-area relationship for Hawaii, it is estimated that the magnitude of the earthquake was about 8. The foreshock sequence lasted 5 days, and the aftershocks lasted for years to perhaps a decade. It appears that this earthquake was one of the very few largest events in historic time in the United States, excluding Alaska, but its return period is unknown.

It is proposed that the source of this earthquake was slip of the upper crust towards the southeast along a near-horizontal plane at approximately 9 km depth. The rupture plane may have had dimensions of at least 50 km × 80 km. It is proposed that its eastern edge extended from near Mauna Loa's summit to the south along the volcano's southwest rift. In this model, magma intrusions into Mauna Loa and its southwest rift provide the stresses which act perpendicular to the rift and which push the volcano's southwest flank away from the edifice of the island of Hawaii. The oceanic sediment layer upon which this edifice is deposited acts as a layer of weakness containing the fault plane. This model explains the eruptive pattern of Mauna Loa and its southwest rift, as well as the growing separation between the southwest rift zones of the two volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Geodetic monitoring of southern Hawaii, particularly of the area between the two active volcano's southwest rifts, could test this hypothesis and lead to an estimate of the recurrence time.

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