Powerful Volcano Eruption And Tsunami Cause Widespread Damage In Tonga

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The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano's eruption caught from space (Photo: Tonga Meteorological Services handout, via EPA-EFE)

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai — an underwater volcano located 40 miles (65km) north of Nuku'alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga — has erupted a couple of times over the past few decades. However, its January 15, 2022, explosion was like none other seen on Earth in over 30 years. The spectacular 13-mile-wide eruption, with a sonic boom heard 6,000 miles away in Alaska, spewed large plumes of ash and gases as high as 19 miles. The massive waves that followed triggered tsunami warnings in Peru, New Zealand, Japan, and the US West Coast.

However, the violent explosion's impact on Tonga remained unknown for days. Less than 20 minutes after the explosion, the South Pacific nation, which comprises 170 small islands — many uninhabited — went dark. The eruption had damaged the single undersea Internet cable cutting off the 100,000 Tongans from the rest of the world.

On January 18, 2022, the Tongan government finally provided details of the devastation using satellite internet. Initial estimates indicate that 100 homes have been damaged and 50 destroyed on Tongatapu, Tonga's main island. Three people have been confirmed dead, but the number could rise in the coming weeks. While emergency teams have been dispatched to help the residents of the Fonoifua, Mango, and Nomuka islands, the fate of those on some of the other islands is still unknown.

Aerial images taken by satellites and surveillance airplanes show the normally lush green island nation covered by a dense layer of dark gray ash. Many areas remain flooded from the giant waves that washed onto land after the eruption, and the usually clear blue ocean has turned a murky brown.

To make matters worse, a dark cloud of ash lingered over the island nation for four days. This, together with the thick layer of ash that had to be manually cleared from Tonga's main international runway, made it impossible for countries to send much-needed supplies.

The first relief planes from Australia and New Zealand finally arrived on January 20, 2022. In addition to water, food, and other essentials, the airplanes were also equipped with "sweeping" devices to help clear the runway. The two countries have also dispatched ships with additional supplies, and help from the US, China, and numerous other countries is on its way.

Tonga's recovery will not be easy. There are reports of widespread damage to crops, and scientists believe the eruption probably killed most marine life in the vicinity. The ash has contaminated the water supply and if left for too long, it could also harm crops and even livestock. The underwater fiber optic cable will take a month to fix. Meanwhile, Tongans will have to rely on satellite phones and limited satellite Internet to communicate with the world.

Stay Strong, Tonga — The World Is With You!

Resources: CNN.com, NASA.com, Smithsonianmagazine.com, NPR.com, New Scientist.com

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