Little girl carrying her sister on a Tonga island. Photo credit: Keonaemali on Twenty20

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption causes catastrophic tsunami in the South Pacific

Pop went the volcano, and maybe mainland resources. The aftermath of multiple natural disasters leaves surrounding regions grappling with infrastructure destruction and possible long-term health risks. 

On January 15, the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on a small, uninhabited South Pacific island erupted 25 miles into the atmosphere. Subsequently, the force initiated an earthquake that led to a cataclysmic tsunami afterwards. 

Not only were Hawaii, and Japan affected, but the chain reaction reached other islands in the kingdom of Tonga, including their southernmost main island Tongatapu. Also home to Tonga’s capital Nukuʻalofa, most of its population live there. In addition, the Polynesian kingdom’s Ha’apai, ‘Eua, and Vava’u island groups were severely impacted. 

“If death had a sound, [the volcanic explosion] would be it,” explained Tonga resident Tevita Fukofuka to Al Jazeera. The first explosion began at 6pm local time, with a total of three heard. Many Togan survivors were shell-shocked, helpless as warnings were broadcasted as the threat loomed. “It came on the radio–a tsunami warning for all of Tonga . . . I can’t describe the feeling. Seeing my daughter huddled in the passenger’s seat, crying, asking if we’ll be alright, asking about the rest of our family.”

Yet for others, the domino effect left them covered in a hazardous volcanic ash cloud 19,000 meters, or about 63,000 feet high. Consisting of rock fragments along with mineral crystals and volcanic glass, the sulfur ash rain will most likely have an adverse affect on their health in the long run. Journalist Mary Lyn Fonua explains of the volcanic ash, “It gets everywhere . . . It irritates your eyes, you get sores in the corner of your mouth, everyone has blackened fingernails—we look like a grubby lot. We need a good tropical deluge to wash everything away.”

The New Zealand High Commission in Tonga confirmed significant damage. Recently, the United Nations reported more than 80 percent of the South Pacific Kingdom has been affected by the disaster, or around 84,000 people. Although 12,000 homes were in the path of the explosion, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported at least 100 homes were damaged and 50 completely obliterated in a Geneva briefing. 

Moreover, the disaster has contaminated most of the region’s drinking water. Almost 70 percent of livestock-rearing households saw their animals and grazing lands perish, while fisheries across the more than 170 Archipelago islands experienced significant loss. 

To date, at least three fatalities have been reported–one British, and two Tongan nationals.

. . . .

During calmer times, a group of children playing in the clear water near the island of Nukua’lofa, Tonga. Photo credit: Adli Wahid of Unsplash

After communications with Tonga were nearly impossible days after the events, the first aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies arrived on January 20; nearly one week after Tonga was hit by both natural disasters. The lapse in time due to the height of the ash clouds preventing New Zealand military surveillance planes from surveying the damage and sending help sooner. Still, there is no communication with the Ha’apai island groups, with two small low-lying islands—Mango and Fonoi–being of concern to authorities. 

Initially, the region saw a normal occurrence of Surtseyan volcanic eruptions in shallow bodies of water. Said explosions helped expand the fairly young island by about 60 percent in size earlier this month. However, blasts became uncharacteristically forceful between January 13 and 14. Ultimately, scientists have yet to see something as big in over 1,000 years. 

On January 17, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, James Garvin, offered preliminary data that estimated the volcanic eruption’s energy was equivalent to anywhere from 4 to 18 megatons of TNT, or 500 times more deadly than the nuclear Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in August 1945. According to the expert, the event is unprecedented. 

“What happened on the 15th was really different. We don’t know why . . . but something must have weakened the hard rock in the foundation and caused a partial collapse of the caldera’s northern rim,” delineated Garvin. “In fact, some of my colleagues in volcanology think this type of event deserves its own designation. For now, we’re unofficially calling it an ‘ultra Surtseyan’ eruption.”

Going back to Cali?

To add, its aftermath could be dangerous for the western region of the U.S., already a hot spot for natural disasters in the Pacific. In particular, the coast’s largest state–California, which is 8695 kilometers or a little over 54,000 miles from Tonga.

Apparently, California majorly sits on two, albeit gradually shifting, tectonic plates: Pacific and North American. Placed on the San Andreas Fault System, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers say California will not end up in the ocean like urban legend permits. Instead, Los Angeles and San Francisco could end up next to each other. 

Although that would surely be an easier commute, this circumstance places California in a unique position as a sole natural disaster can rearrange its geography and subsequent earning potential. Eventually, this will affect the U.S.’s bottom line as well. 

To worsen matters, earthquakes may occur at any time. For instance, Ridgecrest, California residents randomly experienced a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in July 2019. The next day, another 7.1 magnitude tremor hit the region. On average, Californians can expect two to three moderate major seismic events a year, with quakes of 5.5 magnitude at minimum according to the California Department of Conservation.

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Field workers in California are almost exclusively immigrants who work at back-breaking labor to support themselves and their families. This agriculture labor picks strawberries in Nipomo, California. Photo credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This is opposed to the 12,000 to 14,000 range of earthquakes that happen internationally per year, averaging about 35 daily as per The U.S. National Earthquake Information Center reported. Annually, there is purportedly one “great” global earthquake that happens per year. It is considered as such because of its 8.0 or more magnitude. Broken down that is 18 “major” (7.0-7.9 in magnitude); 120 “large” (6.0-6.9 magnitude); and 1,000 “moderate” (5.0-5.9 magnitude) earthquakes. 

Indeed, this could spell disaster for the world as The Golden State is the largest agricultural exporting state in the U.S. Totaling over 400 commodities, the state grows two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, and one third of its vegetables. 

Domestically, California was the top exporter of livestock and dairy products. In 2019, the state generated $7.3 billion for milk production, up over 15 percent from 2018 numbers. Also, they are the biggest exporters of fresh and processed fruits like strawberries and grapes; in addition to processed vegetables, such as lettuce and tree nuts like almonds, among other things. 

In 2017, the third largest American state that has the sixth largest economy in the world, shipped over $23 billion worth of agricultural exports abroad. Its largest markets include all of North America among others globally, according to the Office of the U.S. trade Representative. Two years later, they made up nearly 16 percent share of total U.S. agricultural exports. The California Chamber of Commerce maintains their exports totalled $156 billion to 227 foreign economies In 2020.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the 20 weather-related disasters exceeded more than $1 billion in damage for 2021. Overall, NOAA claims the U.S. endured 310 climate disasters since 1980 that cost over $2 trillion. If California’s agriculture is impacted by the environmental fallout from the volcano, the country will feel the residual effect in food supplies and the overall economy.

. . . .

While California is the biggest American exporter of cattle and popular crops, the state also contributes greatly to transportation and technology. So, an earthquake or tsunami too close to home can affect the North American livelihood, as Mexico and Canada heavily depend on the state. Furthermore, the 21 member nations in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) do too. 

Since there is presently a food shortage, grocers and consumers alike can expect further delays and exacerbated shortages if an event like the aforementioned took place. Therefore, worsening the already fragile state of food security.

Recently, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam along with other military bases in Hawaii have dumped more than 600,000 pounds of toxic, potentially explosive nitrate into the Pacific threatening safe drinking water. A tsunami could easily bring said sludge to shore, further worsening marine ecosystems there like the Shell drillings threaten to do in South Africa. 

Thus, humans must remain mindful of our ecological footprint as it affects how and where we live on Earth. Otherwise, we may pay for our haste with our stomachs. Compounding issues, COVID is ravishing hospitals resulting in rising numbers of sick persons utilizing resources for long-term health effects is less than current demand can meet at the moment.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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