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Volcanic Ash Shrouds the Islands of the Kingdom of Tonga

On 15th January 2022 the massive volcanic eruption  Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai, Kingdom of Tonga, created a shock wave around the world. The eruption could be heard as far away as Alaska.

Satellites and weather stations around the world recorded the event as the effects of the eruption triggered data recorders and a Tsunami warning was issued for coastal areas.

As fascinating as these images are, the overwhelming devastation for the islands which make up the Kingdom of Tonga and their inhabitants is still unknown.

A choking cloud of ash descended on the land, and this continues to hamper relief operations making it difficult to clear the airport runways.

Neighbouring countries like New Zealand and Australia were quick to respond but great care must also be taken because up until the eruption, Tonga had only 1 recorded case of Covid-19. Those delivering aid do not wish to also unwittingly transmit the Covid-19 virus there too.

The Kingdom of Tonga has a population of 104,494 with 70% of them living on the main island Tongatapu. Altogether there are 169 islands, 36 of which are populated. The whole of the archipelago was without communications in the immediate aftermath of the eruption but power is being gradually restored to the main island. Communication with the other islands is still extremely difficult.

The fallen ash has meant that the delivery of fresh water is the top priority. Vegetation, farmlands have all been covered in the choking dust. Homes have been washed away in the Tsunami which followed. The Copernicus Emergency Mapping Service (EMS) was activated in rapid mapping mode (EMSR558) on 15th January.

Digicel (international mobile phone network provider) has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish which may allow a 2G connection to be established. This connection will be limited and patchy, covering about 10 percent of usual capacity and prioritising voice and SMS communications.

According to the United Nations, at least three people have died, (correct as at 19th January) and many people are still missing. At least 90 people have been evacuated in evacuation centres located in the Island of Eua, 17 km south-east of Tongatapu, the most affected island where around 50 houses have been destroyed, and 50 damaged. Many other displaced people fled to the homes of friends and family. Damage has been also reported across the islands of Mango and Fonoi. Furthermore, the affected undersea telecommunications cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world will take at least a month to be repaired.

@UNOSAT

Extensive damage has been observed on Mango island as of 18 January 2022 likely caused by the tsunami waves triggered by the volcanic eruption: the main settlement of the island seems to have been washed away by the tsunami waves ; 27 structures are heavily damaged and/or destroyed; few structures in land seem to have not been destroyed but are likely damaged; vegetation of the island is affected; ash deposits cover the entire Mango island.

@UNOSAT

The primary health concerns include respiratory distress, eye and skin irritation, contaminated water supply, the intensification of chronic illnesses when access to medicine is compromised.

It is reported in the Journal Nature that researchers in New Zealand are closely monitoring the volcano for further eruptions.

“We are just keeping our ears to the ground,” says Shane Cronin, a volcanologist at the University of Auckland. The volcano could be resupplied with large amounts of magma from deep underground and produce more explosive eruptions, he says. But if it has exhausted its main supply, it might produce only smaller eruptions, largely hidden beneath the surface of the ocean

This video from 2017 shows how the island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai was being formed by volcanic activity.

And on the 15th of January 2022 this happened: Hunga Tonga volcano eruption — annotated HD satellite & updated morning imagery

Fiona Grahame

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