Tonga volcanic eruption sends tsunami across the globe

Kylen Christiansen, Staff Writer

On Saturday, Jan. 15, a massive eruption from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the south Pacific Ocean resulted in an extensive tsunami that catastrophically impacted the country of Tonga and sent shock waves around the world.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano is considered a part of the “Ring of Fire,” a cluster of volcanoes in the South Pacific Ocean. The volcano itself is underwater, rising only 114 meters above sea level. Prior to Jan. 15, the volcano had been mildly active and there was a small eruption the day before. The event on Jan. 15 was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in over 30 years. 

The eruption occurred near the country of Tonga, only 40 miles north of the capital, Nuku’alofa. Tonga lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia and encompasses 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited.

A media release from Tongan government officials reported that the tsunami impacted around 84 percent of the population of Tonga, which consists of around 105,000 people. The release also noted two fatalities, which has since risen to three, within Tonga due to the tsunami. Tsunami waves around four feet high hit the main island of Tongatapu and subsequent flooding caused catastrophic damage. 

Several large concerns remain for Tonga in the wake of the tsunami, including access to food and drinking water.

Impact varies from island to island, with entire structures and homes completely destroyed in the hardest hit areas, while other areas experienced a suffocating amount of ash coverage from the volcanic plume.

Communication, both within the island and to outside relief efforts, has been a significant challenge in the aftermath. Telecommunication networks have been destroyed and the volcanic plume has interfered with satellite communications.

Additionally, runways covered with ash have delayed relief support. Following Jan. 15, Tonga spent five days cut off from the world before the first relief plane was able to land late last week. As communication and transportation resume throughout the next several weeks, the world will gain greater clarity regarding the true impact of the tsunami.

New Zealand and Australia have also been main sources of relief to the islands. Tonga has had only one reported case of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, so relief efforts aim to be contactless in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading to the islands, considering the potential for further catastrophic impacts if infections occur. 

The tsunami also reached the shores of New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Peru and the United States. Two deaths have been confirmed in Peru from tsunami-related impacts. New Zealand citizens reported receiving no warning for the waves, which caused boats to sink and sent people running from the piers. 

The tsunami had minimal impact on the west coast of the United States. Here in Santa Barbara, tsunami waves peaked at 2.3 feet, while the highest waves in the United States were recorded at 4.3 feet in Port San Luis in San Luis Obispo County.

Volcanologists are divided on what may come next from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. Some say it will return to dormancy. Other studies suggest that the volcano tends to erupt in a series of blasts, about every thousand years. Finding out what’s next for the volcano and for the islands of Tonga will simply require time and observation.

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