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More deaths feared amid Tonga damage

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-19 09:51
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A cleaning crew work to remove oil from a beach in the Peruvian province of Callao on Monday. A spill occurred after waves caused by the volcanic eruption in Tonga moved a ship that was transferring oil at a refinery. CRIS BOURONCLE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With 3 fatalities known, officials brace for higher toll from volcano's impact

Tonga's small outer islands suffered extensive damage from a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with an entire village destroyed and many buildings missing, a Tongan diplomat said on Tuesday, raising fears of more deaths and injuries.

"People panic, people run and get injuries. Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case," Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, told Reuters.

He said images taken by New Zealand Defense Force reconnaissance flights showed "alarming "scenes of a village destroyed on Mango island and buildings missing on nearby Atata island.

Atata has a population of about 100 people and Mango about 50.

Tonga's government later on Tuesday confirmed three fatalities in its first official update since Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami, and said the evacuation of some outlying islands had begun after the destruction of homes, and confirmed the loss of all the houses on Mango island.

The archipelago's main airport, Fua'amotu International Airport, was not damaged in Saturday's eruption and tsunami, but heavy ash-fall is preventing full operations, hampering relief efforts.

The United Nations' humanitarian office said Tongan officials had said that clearing the runway would take days, as it was being done manually, with the earliest opening on Wednesday.

China and several other countries had offered help to the nation of 105,000 residents, including $100,000 in emergency humanitarian aid in cash by the Red Cross Society of China.

With limited communications from the main island, Tongatapu, to the outside world, damage is said to be widespread. Tonga is made up of 170 islands and atolls with many of them uninhabited.

Andrew Tupper, principal consultant with Natural Hazards Consulting, an Australia-based hazard warning and response consultancy, said the volcanic eruption near Tonga only reinforces the urgent need "for global cooperation on hazards of all kinds".

"The eruption produced ash, gas, acid rain, tsunami and more. The tsunami wave heights were partially tracked through tide gauges that Australia has supported in the Pacific, and the atmospheric clouds through satellite data operated and shared by Japan and others," Tupper told China Daily in an email.

"Our cooperation as a global community helps us all manage these events, including the impacted countries. But there's lots more to do as we work to manage natural hazards together, better, globally."

Spectacular explosion

Chris Firth, a volcanologist with Sydney's Macquarie University, said that apart from tsunamis, the other major cause for concern will be with ash-fall, alluding to worries about layers of ash falling on neighboring islands.

"This ash covers buildings and infrastructure making recovery difficult, buries gardens and impacts plants with consequences for food supply, and is likely to contaminate water supplies. Ash is also hampering rescue and relief efforts as aircraft cannot fly through it," he said.

"The volcano appears to have quietened (down) for now. However, eruptions of this magnitude are not usually over so quickly and the volcano may continue to be active over coming weeks or months."

Scientists said the explosion, with debris thrown 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, could be heard in Alaska, more than 9,000 km away, and that the sound wave spread out across the Pacific at 1,200 km/h.

Measuring around 1,800 meters high and nearly 20 km wide, the volcano was hidden under the water. Satellite imagery on Monday showed ash covering the whole of Tonga and parts of Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Heather Handley, a volcanologist and adjunct associate professor at Monash University in Melbourne, said the volcano is located in part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire.

"Here at the plate boundary the Pacific Plate is being pushed down and under the Indo-Australian Plate," she said in an email.

"What we don't know is whether the volcano will produce another large-scale eruption or whether activity will decline. But volcanic activity, however, is likely to continue over the coming days," she said.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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