The tsunami threat around the Pacific from a huge undersea volcanic eruption began to recede Sunday, while the extent of damage to Tonga so far remained unclear.
Satellite images showed the spectacular eruption that took place Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters. A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska.
In nearby Tonga it sent tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground. The eruption cut the internet to Tonga, leaving friends and family members around the world still anxiously trying to get in touch to figure out if there were any injuries and the extent of the damage. Even government websites and other official sources were left without updates.
According to aid agencies thick ash and smoke was continuing to affect Tonga’s air and water, and that authorities were asking people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”
The tsunami waves caused damage to boats as far away as New Zealand and Santa Cruz, California, but did not appear to cause any widespread damage. Snider said he anticipated the tsunami situation in the U.S. and elsewhere to continue improving.
Tsunami advisories were earlier issued for Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists pointed out that tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
According to the Tonga Meteorological Services a tsunami warning was declared for all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific tsunami center said waves of 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) were detected.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who heads the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.
Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji, which presumably was damaged. All internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time, informed Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.