The Tonga Eruption and its Aftermath

Staff Writer: Mitchell Dokos

On January 15, a massive volcano exploded off the shore of Tonga. The massive Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano has been active since December but erupting multiple times in the past hasn’t been a threat until now.

Tonga is located in the Ring of Fire, where over 1,000 volcanoes are located. The volcano in Tonga erupted in 2009 and 2014, but the magnitude of the most recent explosion has not been seen in decades. The explosion was so massive that the sound from the shockwave was heard as far away as Alaska, which is over 6,000 miles away.

The explosion was so powerful that the volcanic island was wiped off the map. Satellite images show that the volcano and most of the land mass around it has disappeared. The eruption sent a gigantic mushroom cloud of ash into the stratosphere. Smoke and ash were thrown into the sky reaching a height of 19 miles. A substantial portion of Tonga and the surrounding islands are completely covered in ash. The shockwave of the explosion caused 50-foot tsunamis to strike the shore of Tonga and neighboring islands. “The size of the explosion and damage sounds like something we would hear out of a textbook,” high school senior Giovanni Cueto comments.

Satellite images before and after the eruption.

The ash is currently believed to have affected nearly 105,000 people. The tsunami triggered in the aftermath of the eruption extended throughout the entire Pacific as far as the west coast of the US. 

The eruption is reported to have destroyed every home on one particular island. Debris can be seen throughout the island’s surface. On the main island of Tonga, it is estimated that 100 houses have been damaged, 50 of them being demolished.

Fiber optic cables, which are a primary medium of global communication, have been destroyed, so it is unclear exactly how much was lost in this tragic event. Only a fragment of information has been reported from satellite phones. The island is home to over 100,000 people and it is largely unknown how many casualties have taken place. The outside world is still struggling to understand the true scale of the disaster, having only received information through patchy satellite images obscured by the gigantic cloud of ash and debris.

The ash is creating a huge health problem in Tonga, contaminating the drinking water and making the air quality unsuitable for humans. It is also creating a huge sanitation problem for the natives as they struggle to survive until help arrives. The ash is also preventing the arrival of aid from planes. The ash needs to be cleared from the runways before any aircraft aid can be sent. “There’s not much that can be done until communication is restored. We do not know what Tonga needs,” high school senior Marcus Huff states.

Arial Coverage of the Ash that Cakes Tonga’s Surface
Credit: New Zealand Defense/AFP/ Getty Images

Aid, including water, food, and tents, is being sent by boat from Australia and New Zealand. The Red Cross also states that they are sending 2,516 water containers to the island. The UN states that once the needs are confirmed by the Government of Tonga, they are ready to help relieve the country of the effects of the disaster. 

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