On Saturday, January 15, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai undersea volcano erupted in the Polynesian island nation of Tonga, raining down ash and triggering a tsunami. New Zealand’s defence force and the United Nations have provided aerial and satellite imagery to confirm two deaths, one of which was a British national. 

This volcanic event is thought to be the largest in 30 years, with shock waves being felt as far as Peru, where two people drowned due to abnormally high waves. Surveillance flights show that the closest islands to the explosion have suffered extensive damage, with entire villages seemingly being erased by the tsunami.

Tonga is a Polynesian kingdom in the Pacific Ocean, made up of over 170 islands and slightly over 100,000 people. Most Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where dozens of houses have been damaged. Smaller, outlying islands have suffered the bulk of the damage. 

The eruption cut off Tonga from the outside world. Telephone cables connecting the kingdom to other countries have been cut, so Tongans living abroad may have to wait weeks before being able to reach their friends and families.  

Meanwhile, ashfall has rendered airport runways throughout the islands unsafe, halting flights and preventing other nations from sending Tonga aid via plane. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has sent aid supplies and drinking water to Tonga via two naval ships, alongside $1 million in humanitarian aid.

More aid is set to arrive once the runways are cleared, yet Tongans are wary of a potential Covid outbreak in their country. The islands have remained closed to outsiders since 2020 to avoid the virus, and Tongan nationals have expressed concern about the potential risk of a Covid brought on by aid workers. 

In a news conference on January 16, Ardern addressed these concerns, stating “All of our New Zealand defense staff are fully vaccinated, and the reason for that is to make sure that they are able to deploy safely at a moment’s notice. We will be working with officials on the ground in Tonga to make sure that we meet any expectations and protocols that they have established.” 

With ash shrouding the skies and a rupture in communication lines, the confirmed death count in Tonga may keep rising. 

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