Tonga Dealing With Aftermath of Violent Underwater Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

The Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haapai volcano in Tonga erupted with extraordinary fury on January 14, throwing an ash cloud 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the skies and triggering a tsunami warning. On January 15, a second, violent eruption occurred, considered the largest of the century, with sonic booms, heard across the world and tsunami waves sweeping the Pacific. Incredible satellite photographs of the eruption have been caught and shared around the world, but the situation on the ground in Tonga, which has a population of over 100,000 people, is now unknown. 

A key undersea cable that connects Tonga and Fiji for telephone and Internet connectivity has broken many times, potentially owing to an underwater landslide, hampering communication. According to Stuff, a New Zealand news site, a cable repair ship from Papua New Guinea deployed to Tonga to try repairs.

Devastation in coastal areas, poor telecommunication connection, and power outages are all mentioned in early reports. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated at a press conference on Sunday that New Zealand authorities have not received any reports of deaths or injuries in Tonga because of the eruption, though there are reports of missing individuals from the islands. 

Tonga Dealing With Aftermath of Violent Underwater Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

Now that the ash cloud has dissipated, Australia and New Zealand have dispatched surveillance planes to examine the damage; additional information will be available in the following days. The Saturday eruption was so strong that it could hear 800 kilometers (500 miles) distant in Fiji and 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand.

Tsunami waves reached well beyond the volcano and the Tongan archipelago, which includes 169 islands, only 36 of which inhabited. Two ladies were apparently killed by the waves in Peru, which is 10,000 kilometers (6,100 miles) distant, and tsunami waves have been reported in Samoa, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, and Chile, to mention a few places. Dr. Andrew Tupper, the Principal Consultant at Natural Dangers Consulting and former co-director of Australia’s Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre, said, “Eruptions like this one assist reaffirm the need for global cooperation on hazards of all kinds.”

“Ash, gas, acid rain, a tsunami, and other hazards resulted from the eruption. The tsunami waves heights were partially observed using tide gauges that Australia had installed in the Pacific, and the atmospheric clouds were tracked using satellite data that Japan and others managed and shared. Our global community’s collaboration aids us all in managing these occurrences, including the countries affected. But there’s still a lot more work to be done as we try to better manage natural hazards globally.”

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, told Reuters that the government is currently deciding on the appropriate aid strategy. Short-term concerns include toxic ash from the volcano and it may disrupt clean air and drinking water, as well as long-term concerns such as the increased risk of COVID-19 arriving with assistance support (the country is COVID-free). “The volcano appears to have quieted for the time being,” says volcanologist Dr. Chris Firth. “However, eruptions of this scale are not normally over so fast, and the volcano may continue to be active over the next weeks or months.”