The news of a volcanic eruption in Tonga a week ago threatened to monopolize my attention during a typically busy start of semester; more than news of increasing Covid hospitalizations in the UK, Boris Johnson’s blatant attempts to distract attention from his political plight, Vladimir Putin’s imminent invasion of Ukraine, or Brexit-caused miles-long lorry queues at Dover and Calais. While I was engaging with new students on two different courses and marking and moderating assignments from two more, my mind kept returning to my own postgraduate years, which involved studying and writing about Tonga throughout the 1990s and spending two months there in 1993. Anyone knowing the country will have been taken aback at the sight of the satellite image of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai’s ash cloud.

Tonga volcano satellite image
Taken by the Japanese weather satellite Himawari-8, 15 January 2022.

The only parts of Tonga that seemed to have escaped the ash were its northern islands of Vava‘u and Niuatoputapu. Tongatapu and the Ha‘apai group appeared to have been particularly affected, which was borne out by initial tweets from locals before Tonga’s main communications link to Fiji and the rest of the world went down.

In the days immediately after the eruption, with news from Tonga itself absent, the world focussed on the eruption and its related tsunami spreading across the Pacific. The first round-up I saw was from one of Britain’s less admirable media outlets, but its images captured the initial impact well.

The Guardian provided a timeline of the eruption and the New York Times and National Geographic gave more scientific detail. The volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai, formed when an earlier eruption in 2015 joined two islands, was split apart again, and significantly reduced in size, by last Saturday’s blast. The pair of islands sit on the edge of a huge underwater caldera which could well erupt again.

Through the early part of the week, the extent of the damage in Tonga remained unclear. Initial satellite imagery led to fears that the tsunami had washed away entire settlements on Tongatapu, although subsequent higher-resolution images showed buildings covered in ash rather than completely destroyed. New Zealand and Australia sent flights to assess the damage, and their first photos showed its devastating scale.

Towards the end of the week, satellite dishes cleared of ash allowed direct communication with the outside world again, with Tonga’s government declaring an “unprecedented disaster”. Three deaths from the tsunami were confirmed and images circulated of Nuku‘alofa covered in volcanic ash. Fears remained for smaller outlying islands, such as Mango, where every house was destroyed by the tsunami.

Nuku'alofa covered in ash
Nuku‘alofa covered in volcanic ash.

The immediate damage has been bad enough, but in the longer term the eruption may damage the local environment for years, disrupting local agriculture and fishing in a country that relies on them to feed its hundred thousand people. Scientists following the atmospheric impact of the eruption wondered at first if it would have a similar impact on global climate as Pinatubo in the early 1990s, although it now appears that it won’t—but the local health impacts of the ash cloud will be significant.

Tonga needs the world’s help, and will do for some time. Ash covering the airport runway on Tongatapu hampered initial relief efforts, along with fears that outsiders would bring Covid into the country—Tonga has recorded only one case of Covid to date, but has long memories of the flu pandemic which killed one in ten Tongans a century ago. Despite this, aid has now arrived by air from Australia and New Zealand, with more on its way by sea.

For individuals, it’s important to resist the urge to donate physical goods, which are counter-productive in disaster-stricken island communities. You can donate responsibly by giving to reputable aid operations set up by Australian and New Zealand charities working with local organisations in Tonga. If you were awestruck by the images of the Hunga volcano, please channel some of that emotion into helping the people it has so badly affected.

22 January 2022 · Events

I adapted this into a post at Metafilter to drum up some more donations:


Added by Rory on 22 January 2022.