Tonga is fighting multiple disasters after a historic volcanic explosion

Tonga faces possible new COVID risks as it assesses damage from an eruption and tsunami waves.
A volcanic Tongan island.
A volcanic Tongan island. NASA/Damien Grouille/Cecile Sabau

Saturday’s eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano, which sits about 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, has been estimated as the biggest recorded eruption anywhere on the planet in more than 30 years. When the underwater volcano in the Pacific Ring of Fire erupted, plumes of ash and debris shot up 12 miles into the atmosphere. The aftermath’s tsunami waves crashed into the archipelagic nation of Tonga. Waves also reached thousands of miles away, sending several feet of water to the US West Coast, Japan, New Zealand, and Peru. 

Aerial and satellite photos show the dramatic size and progression of the eruption, which bloomed with alarming velocity. The volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been “puffing away for about a month before rising magma, superheated to around 1,832°F, met with 68° seawater, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion,” NBC News reports. Photos of the Tongan islands show thick layers of ash blanketing the nation. The disaster reduced buildings to debris, felled trees, and pummeled much of the coastline in violent waves. 

Since the eruption, other countries have been able to maintain only limited communication with Tonga. The main telecommunication cable connecting the islands to the outside world broke about 23 miles offshore from the coast, testing has confirmed. The Tonga government, in a statement released on Twitter, said it was having difficulties contacting the nation’s outer islands. There are so far only three confirmed fatalities: a British woman living in Tonga, a 65-year old woman from Mango Island, and a 49-year-old man from Nomuka Island. Two fatalities have also been confirmed on the other side of the Pacific, swept up and drowned by high waves in Peru.

There is “large-scale coastal damage as a result of the tsunami wave,” Alexander Matheou, director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told CNN. “We are concerned especially for those low-lying islands close to the eruption itself…At the moment, we know very little.”

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess damage, although lingering ash in the Tongan air is likely to make it difficult to fly in aid. New Zealand has pledged $1 million NZD ($676,000 USD) to Tongan aid; China is preparing to send drinking water, food, and personal protective equipment; and the US international aid agency is working to provide relief supplies and shelter for residents.

[Related: How to survive a tsunami.]

But Tonga is concerned about another risk this international aid will bring. “We don’t want to bring in another wave—a tsunami of COVID-19,” Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, a Tongan diplomat in Australia told Reuters. Tonga, a country of about 100,000 people, closed its borders in 2020 to keep the pandemic out, and they have not reopened since. Tonga has recorded just one case of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and about 60 percent of its population has received two doses of vaccine. As aid prepares to arrive, the Tongan government is trying to figure out how to accept relief while maintaining its COVID-free status.

Peeni Henare, New Zealand’s minister of defense, told The New York Times that they are aware of Tonga’s concerns, and that they’ve “done a number of operations in the Pacific over the past two years which have been contactless.” He added that New Zealand will work with its Pacific neighbors to “make sure that we continue to keep them safe.”