Pacific volcano: Australia and New Zealand send assessment flights to Tonga

Broken communications cable that connects island to rest of world could take weeks to fix

New Zealand and Australia have sent military surveillance flights to Tonga to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.

A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented flights from leaving earlier than Monday.

New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a British woman who went missing after the tsunami in Tonga has died, according to her family.

Angela Glover (50), from Brighton, was swept away while trying to save her dogs, her brother Nick Eleini said. Ms Glover ran an animal rescue centre in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

No other casualties have been confirmed in Tonga.

Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater fibre-optic cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.

The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.

Tsunami waves of about 80cm crashed into Tonga's shoreline, and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and shops on Tonga's shoreline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.

Scientists said they did not think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.

Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulphur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulphur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.

Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption on Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.

A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service.

Large waves were detected as far away as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.

Cable severed

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd, which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.

Mr Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks.

He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.

A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Mr Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.

He said Tonga, home to 105,000 people, had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second international fibre-optic cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any long-term solution difficult.

Ms Ardern said Nuku’alofa was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of Covid-19. Ms Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga. – AP