An underwater volcano near Tonga violently erupted today, prompting tsunami warnings for the entirety of the Polynesian kingdom. Residents have been urged to evacuate to higher ground, with surges likely to hit the north and east coasts of North Island and the Chatham Islands.
Before the eruption, scientists had been closely monitoring the volcano after observing explosions, thunder and lightning since Friday.
Satellite footage showed the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupting on Saturday evening (local time) with a 5km plume of gas, steam and ash soaring 20km into the air.
The eruption struck at 4.10am GMT and tsunami waves were observed in Tonga’s capital and the capital of American Samoa.
New Zealand’s national emergency management agency warned residents to expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges” along the north and east coasts of North Island and the Chatham Islands.
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The National Weather Service (NWS) based in Honolulu, Hawaii shared staggering satellite images on Twitter from the Himawari satellite.
The weather service tweeted: “Large volcanic eruption near Tonga (Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano) today as seen from outer space. Shown on visible imagery using the Himawari satellite.”
Responding to another user asking how today’s eruption compared to Mount Saint Helens, NWS Honolulu tweeted: “Hard to say on how high or Mt. St. Helens comparisons, radius of the high level cloud was approximately 120 miles (one hour after eruption).”
Mount Saint Helens infamous eruption struck on May 18, 1980, and was known as the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in US history.
Where is the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano?
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai is a volcanic island which is approximately 30 km south-southeast of Fonuafoʻou island in Tonga.
The volcano lies on the heavily active Tonga-Kermadec Islands volcanic arc. This is a subduction zone that stretches from New Zealand north-northeast to Fiji.
The volcano sits approximately 100 km above a very active seismic zone.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai last erupted on December 21, 2021, with white clouds seen rising from the ocean.
This lesser eruption caused a huge dust cloud to enter the atmosphere and could be seen from the Patangata coastline near Tongan capital Nuku’alofa.
Today’s eruption has not just affected Tonga, with Fiji seeing strong waves and New Zealand expected to see surges.
Fiji issued a tsunami warning, urging residents to avoid the shorelines “due to strong currents and dangerous waves.”
National Emergency Management Agency said some parts of New Zealand could expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore following a large volcanic eruption.”
New Zealand weather forecasting company Weather Watch posted on Twitter: “The energy release is simply astonishing.
“Tonga is around 2,000km away from New Zealand. Reports of people hearing the sonic booms across New Zealand.”