Massive volcanic eruption in Tonga caused ‘significant damage’

Published January 17, 2022
A Planet SkySat image shows a plume of smoke rising from the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai days before its eruption on January 15, in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga. — Reuters
A Planet SkySat image shows a plume of smoke rising from the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai days before its eruption on January 15, in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga. — Reuters

WELLINGTON: A massive volcanic eruption in Tonga that triggered tsunami waves around the Pacific caused “significant damage” to the island nation’s capital and smothered it in dust, but the full extent was not apparent with communications still cut off on Sunday.

The eruption on Saturday was so powerful it was recorded around the world, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States.

The capital Nuku’alofa suffered “significant” damage, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, adding there had been no reports of injury or death but a full assessment was not yet possible with communication lines down.

“The tsunami has had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku’alofa with boats and large boulders washed ashore,” Ardern said after contact with the New Zealand embassy in Tonga.

“Nuku’alofa is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable.” Tonga was in need of water supplies, she said: “The ash cloud has caused contamination.” There has been no word on damage in the outer islands and New Zealand will send an air force reconnaissance aircraft “as soon as atmospheric conditions allow”, the country’s Defence Force tweeted.

“We’re working hard to see how we can assist our Pacific neighbours after the volcanic eruption near Tonga.” Tonga has also accepted Canberra’s offer to send a surveillance flight, Australia’s foreign office said, adding it is also immediately prepared to supply “critical humanitarian supplies”.

The United States was “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, pledging support for the island nation.

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that the WHO was “ready to support the government and provide help to the people affected”.

The United Nations children’s agency said it was preparing emergency supplies to fly into Tonga in coordination with Australia and New Zealand.

A 1.2-metre wave swept ashore in the Tongan capital with residents reporting they had fled to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses, some with structural damage, as small stones and ash fell from the sky.

“It was massive, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves.

My younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby,” resident Mere Taufa told the Stuff news website on Saturday.

She said water filled their home minutes later and she watched the wall of a neighbouring house collapse.

“We just knew straight away it was a tsunami. Just water gushing into our home,” Taufa said.

“You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground.” Tonga’s King Tupou VI was reported to have been evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa and taken by police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline.

Dramatic satellite images showed the long, rumbling eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano spew smoke and ash in the air, with a thunderous roar heard 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) away in Alaska.

The eruption triggered tsunamis across the Pacific with waves of 1.74 metres (five and a half feet) measured in Chanaral, Chile, more than 10,000 kilometres away, and smaller waves seen along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico.

In California, the city of Santa Cruz was hit by flooding due to a tidal surge generated by the tsunami, videos retweeted by the US National Weather Service showed. Peru closed 22 ports as a precaution while waves of around 1.2 metres (four feet) hit along Japan’s Pacific coast.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2022

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