/ 18 January 2022

Assessing the damage from the Tonga volcano explosion

Image source: Tonga Geological Services
Image source: Tonga Geological Services


Australian and New Zealand military planes have conducted reconnaissance missions over Tonga in the wake of the massive undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday afternoon. A detailed report is being eagerly awaited by Tongans living here and around the world because they have been unable to contact loved ones after the explosion damaged the undersea cable connecting Tonga to the world. New Zealand says there had been “significant damage” along the western coast of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, but the Red Cross says its intel is that things might not be as bad as had been feared. 


It was a whopper. 

  • The underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai sits 65km north of the capital Nuku’alofa. It rose to 100m above the sea, and there was a “major vent-clearing explosion” on Saturday arvo sent ash and gas into the stratosphere 30km above the Earth. Early data suggests it was the biggest eruption since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, and it could be in the top 10 biggest eruptions ever recorded. 
  • Analysts say the blast could measure as high as 5 (out of 8) on the volcanic explosivity index. According to Nobel Laureate/ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, that’s “1,000 Hiroshima bombs”. Experts say the scene would have appeared apocalyptic because the ash cloud would have blotted out the sun. 
  • New generation high-resolution weather satellites showed the rapidly expanding mushroom cloud. Experts say the shock wave covered the distance from the volcano to Nuku’alofa at twice the speed of sound and created the tsunami waves experienced thousands of kilometres away. As for confirmed fatalities, there is one in Tonga so far – a British woman who lived there. And officials in Peru (more than 10,000km away) said 2 people drowned due to the unusually high waves. 


That’s a question many in the Pasifika community here in Australia are sweating on. There are reports of minimal damage to the main island of Tongatapu, but as of yesterday, authorities hadn’t made contact with some smaller islands. A big concern is that volcanic ash has contaminated water supplies and food sources, which is problematic because 80% of Tongans grow crops to meet their daily needs, so aid agencies are on the job. The drama made for a pretty spectacular sunrise yesterday, though… 

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