By Vinu Chakravarthy 7:00 pm PST

On January 15, an undersea volcano, located about 60 km north of Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, erupted violently, sending ash plumes, steam, and gas 20 kilometers into the atmosphere. Tonga is an archipelago containing about 169 islands, situated in the south pacific ocean, about 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand. Of them, around 130 islands are uninhabited.

The volcano named Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, located between two uninhabited islands, recorded minor eruptions in early 2022 but calmed down later. Finally, it exploded on the morning of January 15, sending shock waves across thousands of miles. The atmospheric disturbances from the explosions reached India and even the United Kingdom, about 16,000 km away.

Impact assessment

Immediately after the eruption, Tsunami waves measuring about 3 feet lashed Tonga’s coast. A video uploaded by a local showed the extent of the damage. Coastlines in Japan and United States too recorded an increase in the wave height.

A P-3K2 Orion aircraft flies over an area of Tonga that shows the heavy ash fall from the recent volcanic eruption within the Tongan Islands. A view of the Nomuka village filled with volcanic ash. Source: New Zealand Defence Force

In an official statement released by the government of Tonga, it termed the incident as an unprecedented disaster. The release said that Tsunami waves rose to 15 meters in height across some islands leading to extensive damage. Full statement:

The United Nations Satellite Centre conducted a preliminary analysis of the damage in Tonga. It concluded that in the Nomuka village, which is closest to the volcano, 50% of the structures were completely destroyed. The report also showed damages to Fafaa village, Kolomotu’a village, Fua’amotu airport, and other areas.

Photos shared by New Zealand Defence Force pointed towards extensive damage in Nomuka village.

Cut off from the world

Due to the violent nature of the eruption, thick ash has engulfed the capital city and half the country. In addition, a main undersea fiber-optic cable line that connects the nation with the world got severed, so communication was cut off. Therefore, the actual impact of the eruption, including fatalities and injuries, is yet to emerge.

Two deaths were confirmed in Tonga, one of them being British national Angela Glover, who went out to save her dogs. Two more died in Peru.

Aid materials could not be sent immediately as the airport runway was coated with thick volcanic ash. But both New Zealand and Australia are sending special planes fitted with cameras to assess the damage.

Immediate concerns

The possibility of another eruption from the same place cannot be ruled out. If it happens, it could further hamper the rescue efforts and increase the fatalities.

After the eruption, large amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have mixed with the atmosphere. This combination may lead to acid rain in Tonga. This may, in turn, lead to a food crisis as plants will wilt and die during acid rain.

Volcanic ash will kill marine life if it settles down in the ocean. It will poison the fishes too. Thus, a major food item may go off the plate, and jobs in the fisheries sector may be lost.

There is also the possibility of coral reefs getting damaged as eruptions increase iron content in water.