Space view of the world’s strongest volcanic eruption
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The world’s strongest volcanic eruption in decades rocked Tonga, a Pacific island nation, sending DEBRIS 20 miles in the air and covering the islands in ash in an event that NASA described as more powerful than an atomic bomb.

Tonga is no stranger to earthquakes. It sits on the Ring of Fire, where shifting tectonic plates cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai, the volcano at the center of the recent destruction, has been a source of fear for local residents for years. Before the Jan. 15 eruption, the volcano sent up steam and gases in December as a warning of what was to come.

The underwater volcano and subsequent tsunami was an “UNPRECEDENTED disaster,” according to government officials. Many of Tonga’s 171 islands are uninhabited. 

Eruption Facts:

• Volcano is part of volcanic arc stretching from New Zealand to Fiji

• Force of eruption: equal to 4–18 megatons of dynamite

• Tsunami (resulting waves) hits West Coast of U.S.

However, some of the populated islands, which were first inhabited roughly 3,000 years ago, were heavily damaged by the eruption. Satellite images show Nomuka Island, about 40 miles northeast of the volcano, covered by ash. Coral reefs around Tonga were damaged. The thundering boom of the volcano was heard in Alaska—6,000 miles from the eruption. The surging surf caused an oil spill in Peru.

Tonga’s geography—1,400 miles from New Zealand and 3,000 miles away from Hawaii—means the country is hard to reach. Besides being a remote destination, Tonga is known for its white sandy beaches. It has also been gaining attention in recent years as climate brings rising seas and powerful storms to its shores.

The country’s remoteness presents an added challenge for its recovery. Tonga’s communication has been largely cut off as the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connected Tonga to the rest of the world was severed by the volcano and tsunami. After locating the precise location of the damage in the cable, a specialized ship will be deployed to the area for repair. While it is estimated that there are roughly 200 repairs carried out on cables around the world each year, it is rare for natural disasters to cause this type of damage.

February 2022