By Pacific Island Times News Staff
The tsunami threat from a massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga began to recede Sunday, but the magnitude of damage to the Polynesian kingdom remained unclear.
Satellite images showed the violent eruption that occurred Saturday evening, pushing tsunami waves crashing across the shore and prompting people to rush to higher ground.
The disaster cut Tonga's internet connection, causing a complete communications blackout and leaving the Tongans unplugged from the rest of the world. Government and media websites have not been updated.
“The United Nations offices in the Pacific are closely monitoring the situation and are on standby to provide support if requested. The Secretary-General is grateful to countries that have already offered their support," UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement.
According to the Tonga Geological Services, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano exploded just before sundown on Friday with plumes reaching more than 12 miles above sea level. TGS said a cloud of ash and steam reached about 150 miles across, an event captured by satellite images that have been shared by various meteorological agencies.
Matangi Tonga Online reported on Saturday that the Hunga eruption began early on Jan. 14 between 4:20 a.m and 4:30 a.m. local time and was captured by weather satellites. A team of Tongan geologists went to the site to observe.
"A dramatic animation of the pulsating eruption as it continued through the day was published by the Space Science Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States using data captured by the GOES-17 satellite," the report said.
The online news site said the geologists left the site before the full-blown eruption.
“It was great getting out there during the volcano's peak hours. It's a geologist's dream to see actual geological events in process,” Matangi Tonga quoted Taaniela Kula, deputy secretary of lands & natural resources, as saying.
There has been no news update on Matangi Tonga since Saturday.
Officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, the South Pacific nation comprises more than 170 islands and has a population of 105,697. Almost two-thirds of the population live on the main island of Tongatapu.
According to a report by space.com, Saturday's event was seven times more powerful than this volcano's last outburst in December.
In Honolulu, Kalani Kaʻanāʻanā, chairman of the Temporary Commission on the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts, issued a statement following the disaster in Tonga.
“Our prayers are with the people of the Kingdom of Tonga and all those who have been affected by what has transpired over the past day," Kaʻanāʻanā said. "As people of Moananuiākea, we remain united in our care for one another, especially during these challenging times.”