Powerful volcanic eruption and tsunami hits Tonga

Weeks ago, a submarine volcano near the small island Pacific nation of Tonga started erupting. While the outburst initially seemed harmless, in the past few days the volcano, called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, erupted several times and turned the sky pitch black due to the ash cloud, also triggering a tsunami that severely affected the island and was felt thousands of kilometers away. 

Image credit: Himawari 8 satellite CIRA.

The volcano’s eruptive activity turned especially violent on Sunday, with an eruption described as the biggest recorded on the planet in over 30 years. The middle part of the island disappeared from satellite imagery, with a plume of ash, gas and steam spewed up to 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, along record-breaking lighting

A tsunami quickly followed, hitting Tongatapu – the country’s main island and home to the capital Nuku’alofa. Smaller waves then reached parts of the Pacific Northwest, especially in British Columbia, Alaska, and Oregon. Stations also registered minor tsunami waves in other parts of the world, including Mexico and South America. Two people in Peru drowned because of these waves, and iIn Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were advised to evacuate on Sunday as waves of more than a meter hit coastal areas.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said no other deaths or injuries have been reported so far, but this could change as authorities haven’t made contact yet coastal areas and smaller islands. 

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights to assess the level of damage. On a Facebook post, a beach resort on Tongatapu said the business was completely destroyed. “The whole western coastline has been completely destroyed,” the post reads. Save the Children said drinking water mat have been polluted by the ash cloud.

A volcanic nation

Over 100,000 people live in Tonga, a remote archipelago of over 170 South Pacific islands located 800 kilometers east of Fiji. The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano sits underwater between two islands at 2,000 meters high from the sea floor. The volcano has a long track record of eruptions in recent decades, also causing chaos. 

Back in 2009, an eruption sent steam and ash into the air and formed new land above the water. A few years later, in 2015, an eruption created a two-kilometer-wide island. The most recent eruption occurred in December 2021, with gas, steam and ash going up 12 kilometers into the air. The volcano then erupted again on January 14thand 15th

New Zealand-based volcanologist Shane Cronin told local media said the eruption was the biggest since the 1991 blast at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. “This is an eruption best witnessed from space,” Cronin said. A tsunami warning was issued for the entire archipelago, with waves of up to 80 centimeters detected across the shore.

Meanwhile, Tonga is struggling. Tonga “needs immediate assistance to provide its citizens with fresh drinking water and food,” the country’s Speaker of the House Lord Fakafanua said in a statement. The extent of the damage to lives and property is still unknow, he added. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said waves had a “significant impact” on Nuku’alofa.

One difficult factor to international aid is the fact that Tonga has so far avoided any outbreaks of COVID-19. The country registered its very first Covid case in November last year, triggering a lockdown Other small Pacific nations have also been spared from the worst of the pandemic thanks to their ability to isolate from the rest of the world. 

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