The death toll from the magnitude 8.3 earthquake that struck Tonga is likely to be much lower than previously estimated, according to a new study by UH Mānoa’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Although the island nation has only been inhabited since 1852 and lacks any kind of written history or tradition dating back thousands of years prior, it was still widely believed that at least 4200 people perished in this disaster because no one knew how many lived there before Europeans arrived on their shores 200 years ago. However, after a thorough review of historical records and interviews with those who survived both during and after the quake, researchers found that if some estimates are accurate about 1550 Tongans died as result of tsunami waves crashing into villages where they had sought refuge when high tide hit just hours earlier.
The “worst volcanic eruption” was in the island nation of Tonga. The death toll is likely limited because the country did not have a tsunami warning system in place.
NEW ZEALAND, WELLINGTON — The thunderous boom that accompanied the dramatic eruption of an underwater volcano in Tonga served as a warning bell, prompting island people to escape inland, reducing the death toll when tsunami waves slammed onto the beach not long after.
Even though the island archipelago suffered massive property damage, with the majority of dwellings on certain islands entirely demolished, Tongan authorities stated the Pacific nation’s habit of holding tsunami exercises had played a contribution in saving lives. So far, three people have died as a result of Saturday’s explosion and tsunami, which were felt as far away as the West Coast of the United States and Japan.
Ocean tsunami warning systems are intended to detect waves induced by earthquakes and may miss the uncommon occurrence of a tsunami triggered by an eruption. However, certain particular steps taken by Tonga’s meteorological service in the hours leading up to the massive eruption may have prepared people to react promptly to signals of danger or to remain away from the shore.
Lesser explosions at the underwater volcano were mirrored in tide gauges, prompting the agency to issue a warning around daybreak on Saturday on its Facebook page. It issued a tsunami warning for all of Tonga late Saturday afternoon, not long after a more severe eruption. Thunder-like noises were reported throughout the archipelago about the same time, a forerunner to the massive explosion, and lightning could be seen.
“We predict tsunamis, tropical cyclones, and earthquakes on our islands,” Tonga’s parliament speaker, Lord Fatafehi Fakafanua, stated. “However, the fact is that no one predicted such a massive volcanic outburst.”
Tonga is ranked third in the World Risk Index, after Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, for its susceptibility to natural catastrophes. The World Risk Index helps governments and other policymakers prepare for natural disasters.
According to satellite data obtained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, situated roughly 43 miles north of Tonga’s main island, ejected ash and gas almost 20 miles into the air. Much of the ash has landed on Tonga’s islands, including airport runways and wharves, making it difficult to access and evacuate residents or provide essential supplies.
Following news of the eruption, a Red Cross disaster coordinator in Suva, Fiji, called Marika Moala, a disaster coordinator on Tongatapu, Tonga’s largest island, where three-quarters of the country’s 100,000 people reside. Ms. Moala was sprinting up and down one of Tonga’s few hills while they chatted, assisting others in reaching higher land.
The Red Cross supplied notes from the discussion, which said, “Big traffic bottleneck in Tongatapu and police, Red Cross are assisting traffic to move and transport more people to higher ground.”
“Waves have (sic) come through the city’s coastline side toward the palace, although it has been determined that they are not large destructive ones yet.” “There will be further upgrades,” the notes state.
A jet from the Australian Air Force arrives in Tonga to bring relief.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Handout
Tonga’s principal internet and telecommunications link with the rest of the world was lost not long after the chat, and the Red Cross didn’t get in touch with its Tonga team again until Wednesday morning.
According to a Tongan official statement, tsunami waves might have reached over 50 feet at the volcano’s nearest islands. Tidal gauges 43 miles south of the volcano at Nuku’alofa, the capital, recorded more over 3 feet. Despite their modest intensity, they were strong enough to inflict considerable property damage and throw automobiles down the shore.
“People tend to look at some of the video and assume the waves aren’t very huge, but tsunami waves are completely different,” Katie Greenwood, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Pacific delegation, said. “They simply keep pushing, pushing, pushing, and each wave behind them adds to the loudness.”
After ash was cleaned from a vital airport’s runway, planes delivering aid from Australia and New Zealand arrived in Tonga on Thursday. Because sources such as stored rainfall were likely tainted with ash, water was among the supplies aboard. According to the administration, a New Zealand naval vessel is slated to arrive in Tonga on Thursday, greatly broadening the scope of the humanitarian mission. The HMNZS Aotearoa, a second New Zealand vessel, is slated to arrive on Friday and can desalinate more than 18,000 gallons of water each day.
Tropical cyclones often hit Tonga, which was also hit by a tsunami in 2009 that was concentrated on Samoa. Tsunami debris has the potential for death.
This experience with natural catastrophes and continuing readiness, according to government authorities and humanitarian groups, certainly helped to the quick response and saved lives. Despite being dispersed over hundreds of islands, Tonga’s people are bound together by religion, extended family, and a reverence for the queen.
Satellite photographs show the moment an underwater volcano in Tonga erupted, causing a tsunami that wreaked havoc on the archipelago’s shoreline. Many houses were destroyed, and huge swaths of land were covered in ash. Image courtesy of KMA/Simon Proud/NCEO on Storyful
Marian Kupu, a reporter with radio station Broadcom Broadcasting, described the last explosion that generated the tsunami as “like a bomb bursting.”
“Our ears were ringing,” she said, “and we couldn’t even hear each other.” “I wasn’t afraid at all,” she stated. “The only thing that concerned us was that this calamity wasn’t like the others, which were typically tropical hurricanes.”
According to Ms. Greenwood, there is a lot of speculation regarding the efficiency of tsunami warnings in disaster, academic, and larger circles. In this situation, however, it seems that Tonga’s training and planning have mitigated the devastating repercussions, she added.
However, not everyone was able to escape the waves.
According to a translation of an interview with Broadcom radio, Lisala Folau, who walks with crutches, and a niece were carried off small Atata island, some 6 miles north of the capital Nuku’alofa.
Mr. Folau clung to rubble for hours before making it to shore early Sunday morning in a town near the capital, but his niece, Elisiva, did not.
According to the transcript, Mr. Folau remarked, “We drifted at sea, simply screaming out to each other.” “We couldn’t see each other since it was dark.” I couldn’t hear my niece’s call for a long time.”
Stephen Wright can be reached at [email protected]
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is the average death toll for tsunamis?
A: The average death toll for tsunamis is about 3,000 people.
What are the preparedness of tsunami?
A: There is a high preparedness for tsunamis in the Philippines. The Tsunami Warning System (TWS) will come into effect when sea levels rise by 1 to 2 metres or significant changes in water behavior, such as incoming waves from an earthquake, are observed.