New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage left by a massive undersea volcanic eruption on the Pacific island nation.
A towering ash cloud from Saturday’s eruption had prevented previous flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane on Tuesday.
UN humanitarian officials and the Tongan government “report significant damage to infrastructure around Tongatapu,” the archipelago’s main island, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“There has been no contact with the Ha’apai group of islands, and we are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands, Mango and Fonoi, after surveillance flights confirmed substantial property damage,” Dujarric said.
A British woman who was missing has been found dead, her family said, in the first reported death in Tonga.
Angela Glover’s brother, who ran an animal rescue center, said the 50-year-old woman died after being swept away by a wave.
Nick Eleini said his sister’s body was found and her husband survived.
“I understand that this terrible accident happened when they were trying to rescue their dogs,” Eleini told Sky News.
He said it had been his sister’s lifelong dream” to live in the South Pacific and “she loved her life there.”
The UN’s Dujarric said two people were reported missing. It is not clear if one of them was Angela Glover.
Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the only fiber-optic undersea cable connecting the island nation to the rest of the world said it was likely severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.
The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad. Those who managed to send messages described their country as a lunar landscape as it began to cleanse itself of tsunami waves and falling volcanic ash.
The UN World Food Program is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more personnel and has received a request to restore lines of communication in Tonga, Dujarric said.
Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters crashed against the Tongan coast, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing damage to boats and shops off the Tongan coast. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.
Scientists said they did not believe the eruption would have a significant impact on Earth’s climate.
Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated that the amount of sulfur dioxide released would have only a small effect of perhaps 0.01 degrees Celsius global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at the University of Rutgers.
Satellite images showed the spectacular underwater eruption on Saturday night, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom over the waters of the South Pacific.
A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shock waves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., which owns the only cable connecting Tonga to the outside world through Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable is on top of and inside the coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to lift the cable to assess the damage and then crews would have to repair it. A single break can take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks can take up to three weeks. He added that it was not yet clear when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the underwater volcano to carry out work.
A second undersea cable connecting islands within Tonga also appears to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local telephone network was in operation that allowed Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was still making even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
He said Tonga, home to 105,000 people, had been in talks with New Zealand about getting a second international fiber optic cable to ensure a stronger network, but the nation’s isolated location made any long-term solution difficult.
The cable also broke three years ago, possibly due to a ship dragging an anchor. At first, Tongans had no internet access, but limited access via satellite was later restored until the cable was repaired.
Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick layer of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital necessity.
Aid agencies said the thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering in her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and small pieces of rock that darkened the sky.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay inside and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone froze when the explosion happened. We ran home.” home, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
One complicating factor for any international relief effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreak of COVID-19. Ardern said that New Zealand military personnel were fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocol set out by Tonga.
Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was highly unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humiliating and terrifying.”
The US Geological Survey estimated that the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs New Zealand’s Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of tsunami waves would have allowed most people to reach safety, though she was concerned about those living in the islands closest to the volcano.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and that people can get to higher ground,” he said.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 40 miles north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had observed the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism