Disaster in Tonga

By Isabella Brady

At 5:10 p.m. on January 15, violent tremors emanated for thousands of miles in the South Pacific Ocean; the source was rapidly determined as a volcano off the coast of Tonga: Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. The underwater volcano produced a deafening boom, before spewing a mushroom cloud of toxic ash over ten miles into the atmosphere–all of which would eventually settle onto the islands–coating the landscape, and buildings while contaminating vital agricultural and water resources. 

A volcanic tsunami later attacked the central island, Tongatapu, driving thousands to flee to higher ground. Sadly, three deaths have been reported in the wake of the disaster: two citizens, and one British diplomat. These tidal waves would later ravage the Peruvian coast, drowning two citizens on the beach, and tipping an oil ship—releasing roughly 6,000 barrels of oil. In regard to the recent crisis, scientists are predicting vast damage to marine wildlife in the region, and economic devastation—both of which will be exacerbated by the lack of cleanup thus far.

In the following weeks, the notorious seamount deprived thousands of Tongans of their homes, and left the isolated isles with inadequate water, food, medical supplies, and eventually, without vital connections to the rest of the world. In other countries, the tectonic and atmospheric aftershocks were noted through acoustic ripples measured in the air up to a week later. From 7,000 miles away, Miami, FL observed 695mph pressure waves and acoustic ripples nearly the speed of sound only 10 hours preceding the eruption. On the opposite coast, California, Oregon and Washington issued a tsunami warning in the wake of the natural disaster. 

In the wake of the violent disaster, New Zealand has intervened with contactless humanitarian aid— providing supplies by aircraft to limit the spread of COVID-19, in Tonga’s strict and unimpacted borders. Although there was no warning before the rare disaster, Tonga and other nations work hard to restore the prosperity of the picturesque island nation and monitor the threatening seamount off its coast.