New Zealand and Australia sent military surveillance flights to Tonga yesterday. The trips assessed the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, to the island.
Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 40 miles north of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, exploded Saturday in a series of dramatic eruptions.
A plume of ash, steam, and gas rose like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters. A sonic boom from the explosion could be heard as far away as Alaska. It sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice.
That pressure may even have briefly cleared out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Weather experts detected large waves as far away as the Caribbean Sea.
Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska, says it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin. He called the spectacle, which could be clearly seen from space, both “humbling and scary.”
God created the world and set the rules for how it works. After all, “He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the Earth.” (Proverbs 8:29) This eruption, though frightening, isn’t outside his control.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describes damage to boats and shops on Tonga’s shoreline due to tsunami waves. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.
Ardern says Nuku’alofa is covered in volcanic dust. Authorities are asking Tonga’s residents to wear masks and drink bottled water. The powdery ash is contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Authorities have not yet confirmed any casualties on Tonga. However, according to BBC News, the brother of a British woman says she has died.
Angela Glover, who ran an animal rescue center, was swept away by a tsunami wave. Her husband, James, survived by clinging to a tree.
Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world, says it was likely severed in the eruption. Repairs could take weeks.
The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out describe their country as looking like a moonscape.
Samiuela Fonua chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. He says a ship will need to pull up the cable to assess the damage. Then crews would need to fix it. A local phone network is working, allowing Tongans to call each other.
Fonua says Tonga, home to 105,000 people, has been trying to get a second fiber-optic cable to ensure a more robust network. But the nation’s isolated location makes any long-term solution difficult.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home. A rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock had turned the sky pitch black.
“They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she says. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists say tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council. She hopes the fairly low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worries about those living on islands closest to the volcano. “We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land.”
(A satellite image shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, January 15, 2022. Japan Meteorology Agency via AP)