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Tonga volcano eruption 2022 – an overview

Laura von Puttkamer

On January 15th, an underwater volcano erupted near Tonga. The government of Tonga has since confirmed the deaths of three people. The volcanic ash is hampering aid flights, and there are concerns about water contamination. Here is an overview of the Tonga volcano eruption 2022.

Island in Tonga covered with ash after tsunami (Photo: NZ Defence Force via Wikimedia Commons)

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Last Saturday, an underwater volcano erupted near Tonga. The government of Tonga has since confirmed the deaths of three people. The volcanic ash is hampering aid flights, and there are concerns about water contamination. Here is an overview of the Tonga volcano eruption 2022.

On January 15th, a colossal underwater volcano erupted near Tonga, an archipelago in the South Pacific. The volcano, located only 64 km from Tonga’s main island, belched ash, gas and steam into the air, which resulted in a sulphur dioxide cloud hanging over the islands for days. Only hours later, a large tsunami struck Tonga, triggered by the eruption. The tsunami severed communication lines, which had already been affected by the volcanic eruption.

Waves of up to 15 metres hit west coasts of Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’api islands. In the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, they were 120 cm high. The tsunami killed at least three people. Fatalities include a 50-year-old British national, a 65-year-old and a 49-year-old Tongan. In Peru, at least two people died in the shock waves of the tsunami.

Tonga volcano eruption 2022 is believed to be the largest volcanic eruption of the Ring of Fire in three decades.

Tonga volcano eruption 2022: Every Tongan is affected

Another eruption of the Tonga volcano on Monday, January 17th, was less grave. However, communication lines with Tonga were still severed at that point, resulting in Tongans all over the world anxiously waiting to hear from their friends and families. Aid agencies and Pacific neighbour countries are still struggling to assess the scale of the damage.

Initial assessments show that all houses on the island of Mango, where 36 Tongans live, were destroyed. On Fonoifua Island, home to 239 people, only two houses remain. On Tongatapu, the main island, 100 houses were damaged and 50 destroyed. Displaced people are staying with their families. On ‘Eua, 89 people are staying in evacuation centres. The “volcanic mushroom plume” is still covering all of the 170 islands of Tonga, affecting the lives of all 100,000 Tongans.

Worries about drinking water and food scarcity

Tonga’s Legislative Assembly Speaker, Fatafehi Fakafanua, sent out a social media message on Monday, describing the impact of the Tonga volcano eruption and the ensuing tsunami as “devastating”. Apart from the damage done by the high waves, the fall of volcanic ash continues to affect the country.

Photos show that many island communities, once a lush green, are now covered in thick ash. Countless homes have been damaged or even destroyed. One of the worries is the pollution of drinking water due to stagnant pools of water and volcanic ash.

Food security is another worry. But the broken communication lines make it very hard to assess the damage and the most urgent needs. What is known is that clean drinking water is most urgently needed.

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West coast of Tongatapu after the tsunami (Image: Tonganow On Facebook via Wikimedia Commons)

Aid delivery is hampered by severed communication line, ash clouds and COVID concerns

While the full extent of the harm to lives and property remains unknown, it is clear that Tonga needs immediate assistance. Australia and New Zealand both sent surveillance flights to learn more about the Tonga volcano eruption and the tsunami. They reported significant infrastructure damage on Tongatapu, the main island.

Tonga’s international airport, Fua’amotu, was still inaccessible days later due to the volcanic ash layer. Therefore, New Zealand had sent two naval vessels to assist in the recovery operations. They are not expected to arrive until Friday, 21 January. In the meantime, however, the airport can be approached again.

At the moment, aid organisations are standing by to send emergency supplies, but are still waiting for clear information on what is needed. Also, Tonga has so far has managed to remain almost completely COVID free. This makes the World Health Organisation (WHO) hesitant to allow international aid workers on the island due to fears of bringing COVID to Tonga.

The next steps

WHO is working to send supplies such as telecommunication tools, water sanitation equipment and material to build shelter to Tonga. Securing access to safe drinking water is particularly important to avoid outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera.

Another urgent task is to make contact to two small, low-lying islands. About 100 people live here. They have not been able to make contact since the Tonga volcano and the ensuing tsunami struck the archipelago. A support boat is on its way.

Repairs of houses and infrastructure will probably begin no earlier than February 1st and it might take two more weeks after that date to restore the country’s internet cables. Tongan celebrity, Olympian Taekwondo player Pita Taufatofua, has started a fundraising page that has already collected more than 300,000 USD in donations.

Continued tsunami risk

The Tonga volcano eruption was the largest volcano eruption in many decades. Some even describe it as a “once-in-a-millennium event”. The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano sits underwater between two small Tongan islands. It is about 2,000 metres high, of which 100 metres are visible above sea levels.

Researchers confirmed that the Tongan volcano has erupted regularly in the past decades. This most recent eruption started in December 2021, resulting in two large eruptions on January 14th and January 15th. This makes it the biggest volcanic event in the world since the 1991 eruption of the Philippine’s Mount Pinatubo volcano.

The Tonga volcano is part of the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire. In late 2014 and early 2015, the same volcano created a small new island and interrupted air traffic to Tonga for days.

It is likely that the true scale of the disaster will remain unknown for a while due to communication interruptions. New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry has warned of further volcano eruptions in the next days or even weeks, posing an ongoing tsunami risk.

Sources:
The Guardian: Tonga volcano: islands covered in ash as three deaths confirmed (January 18, 2022).
CNN: First images of Tonga volcano damage show entire communities covered in thick ash (January 18, 2022).
The New York Times: In Volcano’s Aftermath, an Agonizing Wait for Tonga News (January 17, 2022).
Tagesschau: Tonga bestätigt drei Togesfälle (January 18, 2022).

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