Volcano erupts in the Pacific, islanders scramble to escape tsunami
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – An undersea volcano erupted dramatically near the peaceful nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending large tsunami waves crashing onto the shore and people rushing for higher ground.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or extent of damage, as communications with the small nation remained problematic. Video posted to social media showed large waves washing up in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.
The New Zealand military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to help if asked.
Satellite images showed a huge eruption, a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue waters of the Pacific.
The Tonga Meteorological Service said a tsunami warning was in effect for the entire archipelago, and data from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center showed waves of 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) had been detected.
Residents of American Samoa were alerted to the tsunami warning by local broadcasters as well as church bells ringing across the territory. An exterior siren warning system was out of service. Those who lived along the shore quickly moved to higher ground.
As night fell, no damage was reported and the Hawaii-based tsunami center canceled the alert.
Authorities in the neighboring island nations of Fiji and Samoa have also issued warnings, telling people to avoid the shore due to strong currents and dangerous waves. The Japan Meteorological Agency said there could be some slight water swelling along Japan’s coasts, but it shouldn’t cause any damage.
The Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military evacuated King Tupou VI of Tonga from his palace near the shore. He was one of many residents heading for the higher ground.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the latest in a series of spectacular eruptions.
A Twitter user identified as Dr Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted a video showing waves crashing on the shore.
“Can literally hear volcano erupting, pretty violent sounds,” he wrote, adding in a later post, “Ash and tiny pebbles raining, darkness blanketing the sky.”
Earlier, the Matangi Tonga news site reported that scientists observed massive explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it erupted early Friday. Satellite images showed a plume 5 kilometers (3 miles) wide rising into the air about 20 kilometers (12 miles).
More than 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand, authorities warned of storm surges from the eruption.
The National Emergency Management Agency said parts of New Zealand could expect “unusual strong currents and unpredictable surges on shore following a large volcanic eruption”.
The volcano is located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital, Nuku’alofa. In late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a new small island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Tonga is home to around 105,000 people.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, American Samoa contributed to this report.