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Located along the southern shore of the island, the volcano is between 300,000 and 600,000 years old and emerged above sea level about 100,000 years ago.

Kīlauea's eruptive history has been a long and active one; its name means "spewing" or "much spreading" in the Hawaiian language, referring to its frequent outpouring of lava.

The earliest lavas from the volcano date back to its submarine preshield stage, samples having been recovered by remotely operated underwater vehicles from its submerged slopes; samples of other flows have been recovered as core samples.

Lavas younger than 1,000 years cover 90 percent of the volcano's surface. The first well-documented eruption of Kīlauea occurred in 1823 (Western contact and written history began in 1778), and since that time the volcano has erupted repeatedly.

Most historical eruptions have occurred at the volcano's summit or its eastern rift zone, and are prolonged and effusive in character.

The geological record shows, however, that violent explosive activity predating European contact was extremely common, and in 1790 one such eruption killed over 80 warriors; should explosive activity start anew the volcano would become much more of a danger to humans.

Kīlauea's current eruption dates back to January 3, 1983, and is by far its longest-duration historical period of activity, as well as one of the longest-duration eruptions in the world; as of January 2011, the eruption has produced 3.5 km (48 sq mi) of land.

Kīlauea's high state of activity has a major impact on its mountainside ecology where plant growth is often interrupted by fresh tephra and drifting volcanic sulfur dioxide, producing acid rains particularly in a barren area south of its southwestern rift zone known as the Kaʻū Desert.

Nonetheless, wildlife flourishes where left undisturbed elsewhere on the volcano and is highly endemic thanks to Kīlauea's (and the island of Hawaii's) isolation from the nearest landmass.

Historically, the five volcanoes on the island were considered sacred by the Hawaiian people, and in Hawaiian mythology Kīlauea's Halemaumau Crater served as the body and home of Pele, goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes.

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