Tonga Is Covered in Ash and in Crisis After Massive Volcanic Eruption

Tonga Is Covered in Ash and in Crisis After Massive Volcanic Eruption
Volcanic ash covers rooftops and vegetation in a photo taken Jan. 17, 2022, following a volcanic eruption in Tonga. (Photo: CPL Vanessa Parker/NZDF, AP)

The world stood aghast in slack-jawed horror over the weekend after watching satellite images of a volcano violently erupting in the small island nation of Tonga. Officials are only now getting a handle on the damage and humanitarian risks of what authorities are calling an “unprecedented disaster.”

In its first official update posted on Monday, Tonga’s Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the disaster has left at least three people dead, including one British national. The major eruption and subsequent tsunami caused mass evacuations, blackouts, and a nationwide internet outage.

Images coming from the island nation show ash blanketing entire islands, turning green vegetation grey. Virtually all of the country’s internal and external communications were reportedly severed due to a badly damaged submarine cable. Communications in the nation’s outer islands were not restored until Monday, two full days after the eruption. As of this writing, internet access is still disrupted due to damaged fibre optic cables.

“The two communications operators are working on satellite options to restore some services including the internet,” Tonga officials said in a statement. “Priority will be given to international calls and communication services such as email.”

Saturday's eruption seen by Japana's Himawari-8 satellite. (Gif: NOAA/CIRA)Saturday’s eruption seen by Japana’s Himawari-8 satellite. (Gif: NOAA/CIRA)

Homes across the nation were destroyed or severely damaged, largely owing to the heavy ash falling on rooftops unequipped to handle the extra weight. Making matters worse, that giant plume of ash has threatened Tonga’s supply of clean drinking water. One New Zealand resident interviewed by the Washington Post, 35-year-old Sela Fonua, said her family living in Tonga were told not to drink the tank or town water. Ash covering the country’s airports has put all flights on hold, though volunteers are reportedly working by hand to sweep the airports clean.

The pandemic has also complicated international relief efforts. While some organisations, like UNICEF, are reportedly discussing the possibility of sending aid workers to assist recovery efforts, Tonga government officials are simultaneously wary of unintentionally welcoming covid-19 to the island nation with low vaccination rates and little exposure to the virus. The small country just recorded its first covid-19 case three months ago. That single case triggered a week-long lockdown. (Similar concerns played out in 2020 when a Category 4 cyclone hit the small island nation of Vanuatu.) While volunteers remain in a holding pattern, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and UNICEF have sent drinking water, water testing kits, and desalination devices by way of naval ships, but even those supplies may need to be quarantined.

Environmental scientists are beginning to understand the long-term consequences of the eruption. The volcano has continued to emit sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which could create acid rain. That would be a major problem for Tonga and nearby Fiji, including leading to crop damage that could lead to food insecurity on remote islands.

The impact of the Tongan volnica eruption can be seen on the island of Nomuka when comparing before and after satellite images. (Image: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2)The impact of the Tongan volnica eruption can be seen on the island of Nomuka when comparing before and after satellite images. (Image: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2)

There are also concerns the ash could contaminate nearby seawater and poison marine life, threatening one of the primary sources of food and income for Tongans. Scientists fear the eruption could also have long-lasting damage to coral reefs which could have the knock-on effect of reducing Tonga’s ability to defend against storm surges.

Tsunami warnings resulting from the eruption were issued as far as New Zealand and Australia, with the latter country even issuing an evacuation border for Lord Howe in New South Wales. On the other side of the Pacific, tsunami waves made their way to the West Coast from Alaska to California. While the danger has passed for those far from Tonga’s shores, it’s clear that the island nation will need a lot of help in the coming weeks and months as it deals with the fallout.