The fate of thousands of Tongans remained uncertain Sunday after a powerful eruption of an undersea volcano cut off communications to the outer islands of the Pacific nation.
On Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga as they recover from the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami,” adding that the United States “stands prepared to provide support to our Pacific neighbors.”
Australia and New Zealand are preparing to send naval ships to the area, carrying water and other vital supplies. Ash clouds stretching as high as 60,000 feet mean it is unsafe to undertake aerial reconnaissance, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Sunday.
“Communication with Tonga remains very limited, and I know that is causing a huge amount of anxiety,” she said, adding that further volcanic activity “cannot be ruled out at this stage.”
Tsunami waves surged ashore after Saturday’s powerful eruption, causing authorities on both sides of the Pacific to warn people to move away from some coastal areas to avoid possibly dangerous ocean swells. At least 6,000 people live on Ha’apai, a group of outlying islands closest to the volcano.
So far, there are no reports of injuries or deaths. Ardern said officials haven’t yet received any news from the outer islands and other coastal areas, after the main undersea communications cable was disrupted, likely because of a loss of power.
The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami advisory for Hawaii and the West Coast, including Washington, Oregon and Alaska, and a later notice said the threat had passed. The National Weather Service in Portland reported one- to three-foot waves along the Washington and Oregon coast early Saturday.
In South America, Chilean authorities warned people in some areas to leave beaches and Ecuador’s tsunami alert center said it was assessing the threat.
On the other side of the Pacific, Japan put out tsunami warnings for the Amami and Tokara islands with the potential for nearly 10-foot waves. The Japanese Meteorological Agency also issued advisories along the country’s eastern coast. Those advisories have been lifted.
Video on social media showed waves slamming into homes on a shoreline in Tonga after the latest in a series of eruptions of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano, located about 40 miles north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island. It spewed ash, steam and gas up to 12 miles into the air Friday, the Tonga Geological Services said. All domestic flights on Saturday were canceled, local media reported.
University of Auckland volcanologist Shane Cronin, who has studied the Tongan volcano for years, said research on earlier eruptions suggests “this is one of the massive explosions the volcano is capable of producing roughly every thousand years.” In an article published on Sunday, he said it remains unclear whether Saturday’s eruption is the climax. “We could be in for several weeks or even years of major volcanic unrest.”
Geologists had noted explosions, thunder and lightning around the volcano earlier on Friday, according to a local news site.
A first, rough estimate of #tsunami wave heights between #Tonga and #Australia.— Andreas Schäfer (@DrAndreasS) January 15, 2022
This simulation might be an underestimation (1km resolution, unclear source mechanism -> volcano collapse/landslide, 2km³)
It can not adequately reflect complex wave patterns near the coasts. pic.twitter.com/6FWl3fob1d
Tonga resident Mere Taufa told the New Zealand news outlet Stuff.co.nz that the eruption caused her house to shake and, soon after, fill with water.
“It came in waves, my younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby,” Taufa said of the eruption.
Residents scrambled to get to higher ground — a challenge on islands that are mostly flat.
A 2.7-foot tsunami wave was recorded in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the island kingdom of roughly 105,000, according to the International Tsunami Information Center. Parts of the capital were flooded, Radio New Zealand reported, and Tonga’s King Tupou VI was evacuated from the royal palace there.
The government distributed drinking water to residents on some of the archipelago’s dozens of islands where ash was feared to have contaminated water supplies.
Members of the Tonga diaspora on social media reported difficulties communicating with people back at home on Saturday.
Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center, said the sole gauge that measures sea conditions in Tonga went dark about an hour after the first waves hit the islands.
“Thoughts are with the people of #Tonga tonight in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption & tsunami,” Australian foreign minister Marise Payne wrote on Twitter Saturday, adding that Australia “stands ready to provide support to our Pacific family.”
In New Zealand, hundreds of miles away from Tonga, the National Emergency Management Agency warned people to stay away from beaches and shores to avoid storm surges.
The agency added that some parts of the country, including the north and east coast of the North Island, would see “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore following a large volcanic eruption.”
The Tonga volcanic eruption had caused a four-foot tsunami, the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia said.
The threat of strong currents and waves also pushed Fiji to put out an advisory for residents to avoid the shore. An initial warning for the U.S. territory of American Samoa, which experienced tsunami waves and where residents were asked to move away from the water, was lifted soon after.