Stunning satellite images capture massive volcanic eruption near Tonga

·5 min read

An undersea volcano violently erupted in the southwestern Pacific Ocean near the Kingdom of Tonga Saturday, local time, sending shock waves through the atmosphere and triggering tsunami waves thousands of miles away, including along the West coast of the United States. Now, details are slowly beginning to emerge about the extent of damage across the hard-hit Pacific nation, with officials confirming at least three deaths.

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano, located just under 20 miles (32 km) from Tonga's Fonuafo'ou island, had a radius of 162 miles (260 km) and sent a plume of ash, gas and steam as high as 12 miles (19 km) into the atmosphere. Ash had been spotted as high as 63,000 feet, according to Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

Images from space captured the stunning detail of the eruption, from the shock waves that rapidly propagated away from the center to the utter scale and intensity of the explosion. The eruption was described as one of the most violent volcano eruptions ever captured on satellite.

The shock waves from the eruption can almost be thought of as the ripples that occur in a pond when a rock is dropped into the water. These waves caused changes in atmospheric pressure that were detected at weather stations across the globe.

Tonga US Pressure Changes

This animated image shows atmospheric pressure changes being detected by weather observation stations across the United States after the powerful volcanic eruption near Tonga.

Communication with the 105,000 residents of Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom comprised of more than 170 islands, has remained limited as internet and phone lines have been severed, according to Reuters. As a result, crews continue to have difficulty assessing the full scope of the destruction.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a press conference on Sunday that Tonga's capital of Nuku'alofa was covered in "thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable."

"There are parts of Tonga where we just don't know yet ... we just haven't established communication," Ardern said.

Surveillance flights from Australia and New Zealand over the affected areas have revealed extensive damage to beaches and "houses thrown around" on Monday, Reuters reported. Early reports indicate that Tonga's airport has not sustained significant damage, but ash on the runway has been adding challenges for crews from New Zealand trying to land and deliver clean drinking water and other supplies, BBC News reported.

Tsunami waves were triggered by the violent underwater explosion with all of the islands of Tonga under a marine tsunami warning at one point.

"This event is extremely dangerous for those on and near the area closest to the eruption. A tsunami has been generated that we are closely monitoring as it crosses the Pacific," the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) said shortly after the massive explosion. The center later reported a tsunami wave of 2.7 feet (82 cm) at a gauge in Nuku'alofa and 2.0 feet (61 cm) in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa.

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Water rushed through churches and homes in Nuku'alofa as Tongans fled to higher ground. Boats and large boulders also washed ashore as the northern side of the capital sustained "significant impact," Reuters reported.

The Ha'atafu Beach Resort, located near Tonga's capital, was "completely wiped out," according to their Facebook page.

This satellite image shows the violent eruption over Tonga. (RAMMB/CIRA)

Residents reported hearing the volcanic eruption and described the sound as violent, almost as if bombs had exploded or loud thunder cracked. Large waves were crashing on shore by 6 p.m. Saturday as residents reported it was raining ash and tiny pebbles as complete darkness covered the sky, despite sunset not arriving until around 7:30 p.m. There were even reports of those in New Zealand hearing loud booms from the eruption.

Officials in Tonga, which is currently free of COVID-19, are currently weighing options on international aid and prioritizing relief efforts to help prevent a spread of COVID-19 on the islands.

"We don't want to bring in another wave - a tsunami of COVID-19," Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, told Reuters.

On Tuesday, local time, Tonga declared a state of emergency as the death toll rose to two and serious damage was reported following the tsunami.

Tsunami warnings were eventually hoisted for parts of New Zealand, Hawaii, the entire West coast of the United States, Canada's British Columbia coastline and the eastern coasts of Japan.

Tsunami waves nearly 3 feet (91 cm) high were recorded in Hawaii, with waves of 1-3 feet (30-91 cm) commonly reported along the West coast of the United States, leading to minor incidents of flooding. In Port San Luis, California, there was a 4.3-foot (131 cm) tsunami observation.

A harbor official pulls debris from rising waters out of Santa Cruz harbor in Santa Cruz, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Video from Santa Cruz, California, showed the ripple of the tsunami waves flowing up the San Lorenzo River. The harbor in the city was also seen covered in water as the tidal surge arrived.

Local officials along the West Coast urged people to avoid beaches, boardwalks, harbors and piers and get away from the shore until the tsunami danger had passed. In Laguna Beach, California, preemptive measures were taken to close these public areas.

In Japan, nearly 230,000 people had been ordered to evacuate over the weekend as the tsunami bore down on the eastern coastal areas of the country. Waves as high as 4 feet (120 cm) were observed on Amami Island with a 3.6-foot (110-cm) wave recorded in the prefecture of Iwate, according to Kyodo News. Early reports indicate no major damage or flooding across the region.

This is not the first time this volcano has erupted, as RNZ reported, it was erupting intermittently in late December but had since been declared dormant. The last eruption was on Dec. 20, but Saturday's eruption was reportedly seven times more powerful.

A volcanologist from New Zealand told RNZ that this may be the biggest eruption since Mount Pinatubo exploded in the Philippines 30 years ago.

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