Sylvia Woodbury— Correspondent
Giant plumes of ash descended over the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga as the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15th.
The ash obscured the archipelago and settled over the islands, shading the landscape gray and black. The most significant volcanic eruption in thirty years resulted in tsunamis felt across the Pacific, explosions of gas audible as far away as New Zealand — some 2000 km — and untold destruction of crops and homes across Tonga. At least three deaths have been recorded.
Although the Tongan airport is functional and currently receiving aid convoys, submarine communication lines between Tonga and Fiji have been severed; communication with the outside world is thus only possible by satellite phone. Roads and bridges have been decimated and transportation capabilities are limited. There is also concern that drinking water has been contaminated by volcanic ash.
“The true number of deaths among the country’s 100,000 people is unknown. So is the extent of damage to crops, villages, and livelihoods,” wrote the Economist in its January 22nd issue.
The event, monumental for Tonga, is also such for the scientific community. Inquiry has surfaced regarding the effect of Tonga’s eruption on world weather. Although the eruption will not have any cooling effect on global climate, there are likely to be short-term changes in weather, as well as disruptions in radio transmissions.
Scientists are also studying the shock wave produced by the eruption, which led to tsunamis across the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. “In total, 53 detectors around the planet, as far away as Antarctica, recorded the low-frequency boom from the explosion as it traveled through the atmosphere,” wrote Jonathan Franklin of NPR.
Lori Dengler, professor of geophysics at Humboldt State University in California, stated that modern scientific capabilities contribute to the significance of the recent eruption. “Not that we weren’t aware of volcanic explosions and tsunamis. But to witness it with the modern array of instruments we have is truly unprecedented,” said Dengler.
The volcano’s plume jetted almost twenty miles into the atmosphere, and a cloud of ash, water vapor, rock, and gas spread hundreds of miles wide. The shock wave it created sped around the world at more than 600 miles per hour. It has been conjectured that this shockwave played a hand in the widespread tsunamis seen across both hemispheres, and will affect the weather in the coming days.
“There may now be an effort to study the consequences of the eruption, such as the effects on local marine life, and perhaps to monitor any post-eruptive changes or processes at the volcano itself,” said Dr. David Ferguson, volcanologist at the University of Leeds.
Dr. Corwin Wright, atmospheric physicist at the University of Bath in England, says this eruption is one of the first he has seen like it. “We’ve never seen anything really that covers the whole Earth like this, and certainly not from a volcano,” said Wright.