On January 14, the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano in the Kingdom of Tonga erupted with incredible force sending an ash cloud 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the atmosphere and raising a tsunami warning. This was followed by a second more powerful eruption on January 15, considered the biggest to have occurred this century, with sonic booms heard across the world and tsunami waves across the Pacific.
Incredible satellite images of the eruption have been captured and shared around the world, however, it's currently unclear what the situation is on the ground in Tonga, which is home to over 100,000 people. A major undersea cable for telephone and Internet communication that runs between Tonga and Fiji has suffered multiple breaks, possibly due to an underwater landslide, crippling communication. A cable repair ship from Papua New Guinea is being sent to Tonga to attempt repairs, reports New Zealand news site Stuff.
Initial reports cite devastation in coastal areas, limited access to telecommunication, and power outages. So far, New Zealand authorities have not received any reports of deaths or injuries in Tonga related to the eruption, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference on Sunday, though there are reports of missing people from the islands. Australia and New Zealand have sent surveillance airplanes to assess the damage, now the ash cloud has cleared, so more will become known in the upcoming days.
The eruption on Saturday was so loud it was heard in Fiji, 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, and in New Zealand, which is 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away.
Tsunami waves extended far from the volcano and the Tongan archipelago, which is comprised of 169 islands, of which only 36 are inhabited. The waves reportedly caused the death of two women in Peru, 10,000 kilometers (6,100 miles) away, while tsunami waves have been reported in Samoa, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, and Chile to name a few.
"Eruptions such as this one help reinforce the need for global cooperation on hazards of all kinds," said Dr Andrew Tupper, Principal Consultant at Natural Hazards Consulting and previously co-director of Australia’s Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre.
"The eruption produced ash, gas, acid rain, tsunami, and more. The tsunami wave heights were partially tracked through tide gauges that Australia has supported in the Pacific, and the atmospheric clouds through satellite data operated and shared by Japan and others. Our cooperation as a global community helps us all manage these events, including the impacted countries. But there’s lots more to do as we work to manage natural hazard together better globally."
Now, the Tonga government is deciding the best strategy for aid, Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, told Reuters. Concerns are both short-term, such as toxic ash from the volcano and how that may affect clean air and drinking water, and long-term, including the heightened risk of COVID-19 coming in with aid support (the country is COVID-free).
“The volcano appears to have quietened for now, however eruptions of this magnitude are not usually over so quickly and the volcano may continue to be active over coming weeks or months,” notes volcanologist Dr Chris Firth.