The largest volcanic eruption of the 21st century – here’s what we know so far.

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On the 14th of January an eruption estimated to be the largest of the 21st century occurred on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’api, an uninhabited volcanic island 65km from Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu. The eruption caused tsunamis in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Japan, The United States, Chile, Peru, and parts of Eastern Russia. At least 5 have been reported dead, 4 are injured, and others are reported missing, yet these figures are likely to change as the crisis is still ongoing.

Current damage

Though the extent of the damage in Tonga is still not clear, a blanket of thick ash has contaminated water supplies, cut off communications, and prevented surveillance flights, making it difficult for relief efforts to begin.

Southern Cross Cable reported that the eruption may have broken the Tonga Cable System which connects the nation to Southern Cross’s trans-Pacific cable in Fiji. The chair of the Tonga Cable System, Samiuela Fonua, stated that repair crews would not be cleared to access the site of the faults before Hunga Tonga’s volcanic activity ceased. This order means that internet services could be unavailable for two weeks.

Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa has been blanketed in a 2cm layer of volcanic ash, according to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Atatā, a small island off the coast of the capital, was reportedly submerged after the wave of tsunamis. There were some reports of residents struggling to breathe because of the ash.

According to media released by the Tongan government, all structures were destroyed on Mango Island. Only two buildings remain intact on Fonoifua Island. Eight homes were demolished and 20 seriously damaged in the capital. On Atatā Island, at least 72 buildings were effected by the Tsunami. Satellite images of Nomuka Island exposed that nearly 1/5 of the structures have been damaged. The Fua’amotu International Airport was covered with ash and dirt

Worse things to come

Scientists have reported that this catastrophic event will likely harm the surrounding environment for years to come.

Since the eruption, the volcano has been releasing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two gases which combine with water and oxygen to create acid rain, and with Tonga’s tropical climate ‘There is likely to be acid rain around Tonga for a while to come’.

Acid rain damages crops, meaning Tonga’s agricultural base which dominates its economic makeup could be ravaged. Furthermore, due to the current difficulty in communicating and sending aid to Tonga, food security could seriously be compromised.

Marine life is also very much at risk. Vast areas of Tonga’s coral reefs, which were already threatened by disease outbreaks and the effects of climate change, are probably smothered by volcanic ash. Volcanic eruptions also release an excess of iron into surrounding waters, which boosts the growth of blue-green algae which can further degrade reefs.

Tonga’s marine life is a staple of its tourism industry which, like its agricultural sector, helps keep the nation afloat. with murky, ash-filled water contaminated with toxic volcanic discharge, as well as coral and fish populations which will take a long time to return, Tonga’s economy could be even more at risk.

Aid so far

On 17 January officials in Tonga called for immediate aid to provide its citizens with drinking water and food.

Tearfund and Oxfam provided immediate assistance by supporting people with food and water. Oxfam has filtering units in Tongatapu which can turn salt water into drinking water. UNICEF will work with the Tongan government to reach affected children and families.

Many nations have also provided assistance. On 16 January New Zealand’s Prime Minister announced a donation of NZ$500,000. Many warships have also been sent, such as the HMNZS Wellington which carried survey equipment and a helicopter, and the HMNZS Aotearoa which carried 250,000 litres of water and desalination equipment to produce 70,000 litres per day.

New Zealand and Australia have also announced that they were coordinating their humanitarian response with France and the United States.

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