Unprecedented. Isolation. Uncertainty. All words nobody ever wanted to hear again, yet here we are. No, we’re not having a flashback to 2020 or sounding the alarms about a worldwide health crisis; we’re talking about a volcanic eruption with the strength of “hundreds of Hiroshima bombs.”
It’s been 13 days since a volcano in the Kingdom of Tonga unleashed a devastating fury across the island nation before sending tsunami waves crashing thousands of miles through the Pacific, in an event most accurately described as “off-the-scale weird.”
Many people had never heard of Tonga until January 15, when their news and social media feeds became flooded with warnings of tsunamis accompanied by a jarring image of a massive mushroom-shaped plume seen from space. The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano had officially captured the world’s attention.
The Friendly Islands
Known as “The Friendly Islands,” the Kingdom of Tonga comprises over 170 coral and volcanic islands, 48 of which are inhabited by around 100,000 people. Despite its pristine beaches, untouched nature, and spectacular snorkeling making it an international tourist magnet, Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation to have never been colonized by a foreign power, with its 1,000-year-strong monarchy remaining the nation’s most powerful entity.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupting isn’t newsworthy in itself. The underwater volcano has a history of volatility. The volcano was preceded by two uninhabitable volcanoes that first breached sea level during a 2009 eruption until a 2015 explosion spewed so much ash and rock that it formed a third, mile-long island that joined them as one big cluster.
When another rumble began on December 20, 2021, it was thought to be another harmless explosion until early January, when, after a brief period of calm, the eruption became increasingly violent, shooting clouds of ash and record-breaking lightning into the sky. The middle section of the island disappeared on satellite images in a matter of days.
“The thing just went gangbusters,” said Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist and lightning applications manager at Vaisala, a Finland-based weather measurements company. “We were starting to get 5,000 or 6,000 events per minute. That’s a hundred events per second. It’s unbelievable.”
An Eruption of Epic Proportions
The volcano soon hit its limit during the early hours of January 15, with a colossal explosion so loud the sonic boom was reportedly heard in parts of Alaska and Canada and an atmospheric shockwave so strong it traveled at 1,000 feet per second and affected barometric pressure changes around the globe.
A tsunami quickly followed the explosion, hitting Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa, located about 40 miles away from the volcano on the main island of Tongatapu. The incoming waters knocked out power, water, and all means of communication as people scrambled for their lives under the pitch-black sky.
Coastal communities far and wide were put on high alert with smaller tsunami waves surging the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest, Japan, New Zealand, and Peru — where two people lost their lives after being swept away by the swells.
Did we mention the actual eruption only lasted about an hour?
A “Once-in-a-Millenium” Event
An explosion of such epic proportions is believed to be a once-in-a-thousand-year occurrence, leaving scientists eager to understand exactly what caused it to anticipate any future happenings.
“Everything so far about this eruption is off-the-scale weird,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist with Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, adding, “There are far more questions than answers at this point.”
With communication and air travel still touch and go on the islands, it’s yet to be determined which areas were hit hardest and just how much devastation was left in the eruption’s wake. It has also been impossible for scientists to get close to the volcano to study its activity.
According to Shane Cronin, a professor in volcanology at the University of Auckland, “It takes roughly 900–1,000 years for the Hunga volcano to fill up with magma, which cools and starts to crystallize, producing large amounts of gas pressure inside the magma.” The gases build pressure, making the magma unstable until it explodes, “like putting too many bubbles into a champagne bottle — eventually, the bottle will break.”
For the time being, the main focus is getting Tongans the resources needed to recover from the blast. Several countries have aid ready to be delivered as soon as the thick cloud of ash looming over the islands clears, including safe drinking water, as contamination from debris, ash, and smoke has created a major shortage.
Once assistance can make it to the island, the next challenge will be reconnecting their underwater communication services — and hopefully finding a way to build upon it to avoid future issues.
By Meghan Yani, contributor for Ripleys.com