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Major explosion in Tonga creates tsunami and heavy ash fall

The first major volcanic eruption hit the island nation of Tonga today. Above these last weeks, the small volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai had experienced minor but impressive explosions. However, on January 14 and 15, tThe eruption became much more violent, sending ashes 60,000 feet (18 kilometers) in the sky. The blast also generated a tsunami that hit many islands in Tonga, destroying homes and buildings across the country.

Animated GIF of Himawari-8 images taken on January 14-15, 2022, capturing the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption. Credit: JMA, directed by Erik Klemetti

The explosion was dramatically captured by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite. In this animated GIF (above) you can see the big explosion begin and the shock wave from the explosion shoot through the atmosphere away from the volcano for hundreds of miles like ripples in a lake. the the shock wave was recorded in atmospheric pressure as far as Anchorage after covering more than 5,800 miles (9,200 kilometers). You can also see the thin, rapid thrust in front of the growing cloud. this seems to be possibly the largest eruption on record for the volcano.

A volcanic tsunami

The eruption caused a tsunami, although at this time it is unclear exactly what generated the massive ocean wave. There are a number of different ways that volcanoes can produce tsunamis, including island collapse, massive underwater landslides, or the force of the explosion itself when pyroclastic flows are generated by the eruption. Any of these could be the case for Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai.

Video posted to Twitter shows people trying to escape the waves that exceeded 4 feet (~1.2 meters) when they hit the islands. Most of these waves probably hit a few minutes after the explosion. The tsunami was big enough to be felt as far as Hawai’i, where 1-2 foot waves hit islands about 5,000 miles away. Parts of the west coast of the United States are also subject to a tsunami advisory.

The blast was loud enough to be heard like thunder over 800 kilometers away in Fiji. Gray ash from the eruption fell heavily on the islands of Tonga. Video of the eruption (above) showed a huge dark gray plume that turned from day to night as ash filled the sky. Until now, no casualties were reported of this combination eruption and tsunami in Tonga, but whether everyone was spared by this explosion remains to be seen. It remains to be seen what could have triggered such a huge Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai explosion or if other explosions of this magnitude will follow.

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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes