Satellite Images Capture Giant Underwater Volcano Eruption Near Tonga

On Saturday, the eruption of a massive underwater volcano in the South Pacific caused a wave of tsunami warnings around the globe. Located close to the island nation of Tonga, the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano's violent eruption was captured on numerous satellites. After it exploded again on Sunday, the U.S.-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center stated that a nearly 3-foot-high wave had flooded part of  Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital.

As communication with the island nation has been difficult since the eruption, New Zealand and Australia have sent planes to assess the damage. The initial blast was so strong that it could be heard both in Fiji—500 miles away—and New Zealand—1,500 miles away. In satellite images taken by Tonga Meteorological Services and Japan's Himawari-8 weather satellite, the enormous plume of smoke and ash that shot 12.4 miles into the atmosphere is clearly visible.

If you aren't familiar, Tonga is a country composed of 170 islands in the South Pacific. More than half the islands are uninhabited, with 70% of the population living on Tongatapu, the largest island. Social media posts showed people fleeing high waves on the island on Saturday, as roads and properties flooded. Luckily, at the moment, no mass casualties have been recorded, though communication with the outer islands has been scarce.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai sits about 20 miles off the coast of Tonga's Fonuafo'ou island. A little over 300 feet is visible above sea level, but the massive volcano actually stretches up 6,500 feet from the bottom of the sea. It's been erupting regularly over the last few decades, with one explosion even creating a new island in 2015.

However, this particular explosion has had far-reaching implications. A large cloud of volcanic ash has slowly been drifting across the South Pacific, reaching Australia on Monday. Immediately after the eruption, tsunami warnings were issued in parts of Japan, Peru, New Zealand, and the United States. Nine-foot waves were reported in northern Japan, while tsunami waves also reached California, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Though it appears that things have now calmed in much of the world, with tsunami warnings being canceled, Tonga is facing a tough battle. Tonga's Speaker of the House Lord Fakafanua issued a statement asking for assistance in providing fresh water and food to citizens. He noted that many areas were affected by “substantial volcanic ashfall,” while acknowledging that “communications remain down and the full extent of the harm to lives and property is currently unknown.”

Both New Zealand and Australia are committing funds to support the relief effort and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has a team on the ground with supplies to support 1,200 households.

Watch more incredible satellite imagery of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano eruption.

As communication with Tonga has been scarce, the world has seen the aftermath of the eruption unfold via social media.

The scale of the impact is incredible, with researchers saying that this is the biggest eruption in 30 years.

h/t: [CNN, Al Jazeera]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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