The Hunga Tonga Eruption & Tsunami: A Shock Felt Around The World


Christopher Owen

The world got to witness the grave unpredictability of natural disasters last Saturday in Hunga Tonga, a Polynesian country that was the victim of an unprecedented underwater volcanic eruption and consequent tsunami. Even though the Polynesian nation is well-accustomed to continuous volcanic activity, being an archipelago with over 169 individual volcanic islands, no one, meteorologists, severe weather experts, and Tongans alike, anticipated a disaster of this magnitude. A 7-foot tsunami that occurred shortly after the volcanic blast steamrolled through the islands, causing an even more devastating loss of property and life. With 5 people confirmed dead, 4 confirmed injured, hundreds of more missing, and a majority of the islands in ruins, this is the largest volcanic eruption to have occurred in the 21st century and since Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. To understand why natural disasters like these pack such a catastrophic punch, it’s important to know how this one-of-a-kind event actually happened. 

Hunga Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, having over 133 small islands and 36 larger ones where the entire Tongan population lives. This region lies directly within the Ring of Fire, the most active chain of volcanoes on the planet, as well as between a divergent and convergent plate boundary. Underwater volcanoes form at mid-ocean ridges (when two tectonic plates spread apart) and collision zones due to constant tectonic activity, as part of natural convection currents within the mantle. Magma rises to the surface, forms a new crust, and eventually the iconic cone shape of the volcano. Hunga Tonga has been experiencing rather minor eruptions for centuries, none of which warranted evacuations or weather warnings. But the last one happened in 2014 and the volcano fell dormant for 7 years, which raised suspicion that a large, unprecedented eruption was brewing, one that nobody would be able to prepare for. The public’s nightmare of a supernatural disaster horrifically came true. 

Leading up to January 15th, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on December 20th, 2021, sending a massive pyroclastic flow over 30,000 feet into the air, temporarily suspending air travel and slightly increasing the size of the islands with settled magma. After stopping on January 5th, it seemed that this was nothing too severe, similar to one of the dozens of sporadic eruptions Hunga Tonga receives annually. However, the volcano violently erupted again on January 15th, this time generating an explosion seven times stronger than its previous one. Not only was the pyroclastic flow hotter and larger (over 55,000 feet tall), but the volcano had created an eruption over 300 miles wide and 12 miles high, also emitting a shockwave traveling at 1000 miles per hour and a worldwide tsunami destroying everything in its path.  

This is by far the most chilling aspect of this natural disaster: the number of countries and people who fell victim to it. Residents from Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Alaska, Fiji, and a dozen more countries heard loud booms, had their windows shattered and their beaches and properties leveled from the tsunami. 2 Peruvian women were killed while driving on a coastal highway and 2 fishermen in California were injured when their boat capsized during a daily fishing trip. The eruption also damaged the La Pampilla crude oil refinery in Peru, which released over 6,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean in a matter of hours, resulting in the country’s worst ecological disaster to date. 

Tonga’s network communication lines with other countries have been completely severed, with no internet or cell phone network. While this issue is being resolved, New Zealand, Australia, China, and Fiji are using their air forces to deliver care packages and aid to Tonga in hopes of mitigating the hardship. But even after the worst had passed, it is apparent that there is still a long road to full recovery for the millions of people whose lives have been greatly upended.    


Click the link below to view satellite footage of the volcanic eruption: