Latest Surge to Deal With Is Tidal and Not Viral – A Tsunami

First Delta. Then Omicron. But the latest surge Americans have been forced to deal with has nothing to do with viruses; it was a surge of water–a tsunami! The tide turned, but not in a good way. It became a tidal wave for coastal residents to avoid along with the latest COVID variant.

What? A tidal wave affecting the United States? Yes, indeed. A January 15th eruption of an undersea volcano in Tonga led to tsunami advisories for Hawaii as well as coastal regions of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. What does one do to prepare for a tsumani? Stay away from the water and be prepared to head for the hills–or at least higher ground.

Before going into the details of this scary recent event, let’s learn a bit about tsunamis. Most know they involve a huge wall of water bearing down on some hapless and helpless coastal area. I mean who hasn’t seen at least one disaster movie where a tsunami is part of the storyline? But disaster movies aren’t really known for their educational value.

The word “tsunami” comes from a Japanese word meaning “harbor wave.” Given the name, it isn’t surprising to find out Japan has the longest recorded history of tsunamis. Well, of course, a country would name something it repeatedly experienced.

Basically, a tsunami is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water. While normal ocean wavers are produced by wind or tides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions cause tsunamis. Initially, a tsunami looks like a rapidly rising tide, so it is often referred to as a tidal wave. Actually it looks more like a massive surge of water than a typical breaking wave.

The tsunami leading to advisories being issued in parts of the U.S. this past weekend was the result of a massive volcanic eruption near Tonga. Raise your hand if you know exactly where Tonga is. Right. So, the Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country in the South Pacific some 1,500 miles north of New Zealand. It is an archipelago consisting of 169 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited.

Why is Tonga’s location important? Well, as it relates to the tsunami advisory, understand that Tonga is 3,144 miles away from Hawaii with another 2,471 miles needed to reach California. That means the force of the volcanic eruption was so massive that it propelled water thousands of miles away with such force that it was feared it would wreak havoc. Yikes!

Just how big was the eruption which generated the tsunami? It was big enough to be seen from space and captured by satellite imagery which showed a giant mushroom cloud above the South Pacific. A resulting sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska, and pressure shockwaves circled the planet TWICE. Three of Tonga’s outlying islands were hit by FORTY-NINE foot waves, and an ash plume rose 12.5 miles high. I’d say that was a pretty massive eruption! And experts agree; they indicate this eruption was likely the biggest volcanic event recorded since Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.

Are you a visual learner? Check out this video to see for yourself what happened in Tonga:

The culprit in the tsunami incident was an undersea volcano situated about 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, which began erupting early Friday. The volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai (say that three times fast!) is part of the highly active Tonga-Kermadec Islands volcanic arc. The January 15th blast was actually its third eruption in recent weeks. An eruption on December 20th lasted for a week followed by another on January 13th. But the latest blast was a doozy, estimated to be seven times more powerful than the December 20th one.

In the aftermath of the eruption and ensuing tsunami, life has been turned upside down for Tonga’s population of 105,000. There have been three deaths (with the number expected to rise), injuries, and the loss of homes. Water has been polluted. All internet connection with the country was lost due to the severing of an underwater cable. Thick, gray ash covers everything, making the land look like, what has been described as a “moonscape.” The country’s king evacuated his palace, which remains flooded. Outside aid means the country, which has so far avoided an outbreak by closing its border to international travelers, may be exposed to COVID by relief workers.

Thousands of miles away, the U.S. fared much better. Hawaii escaped with minimal damage and minor flooding. Waves with heights only up to four feet were reported across the West Coast. Many marinas, piers, and beaches were closed upon issuance of the tsunami advisory from the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. (Who knew such a center existed?) The National Weather Service advised individuals to stay out of the water and away from the shore due to strong waves and dangerous currents. These advance warnings and preventive measures apparently helped to avoid injuries and death.

But don’t think the story is over. New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry warned Tuesday that further eruptions are likely with the attendant risk of a tsunami. Even when the eruptions end and people in the U.S. don’t have to worry about finding the nearing tsunami evacuation route, the story will continue. Rebuilding and returning to a normal life in Tonga will take time and money. Fortunately, financial assistance is already pouring in due to appeals from the famous Tongan athlete, Pita Taufatofua, better known as the shirtless Olympic flagbearer for his country. As of Wednesday afternoon, his efforts at relief fundraising for Tonga had surpassed $340,000.

While much of the current news deals with tiny things, viruses which surge and threaten our health and our lives, big things threaten us as well. Massive walls of water can overtake people with little or no warning, and no mask can protect them from such harm. Perhaps what ought to be surging right now is thankfulness we have survived another day.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you know the appropriate action to take when there’s a tsunami advisory? Can you find Tonga on a globe or map? Which is scarier to you–catching COVID or facing a tsunami?

There She Blows–Etna’s Erupting!

On the Red Planet, Rover Perseverance is taking photos of a never before seen but pretty blah Martian landscape. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Mount Etna is providing a spectacular display with ongoing photo ops. While the majestic peak is a dazzling shot itself, fountains of lava spewing high into the air offer the chance to capture nature’s power and beauty. While most Earthlings’ attention is focused on a tiny coronavirus, Etna’s eruption is a reminder that there are big things which can pose a danger to humans as well.

For those of us who are not volcano experts, we should know that Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It stays in an almost constant state of activity. This activity culminated in a summit eruption on February 16th. For days afterwards the volcano continued to belch lava, ash, and volcanic rock without even an apology for this rude behavior.

So, we know that the lava, ash, and rocks were up in the air, but where exactly is Mount Etna? The volcano is situated in eastern Sicily and is the largest of three active volcanoes in Italy. Towering over the landscape at 11,050 feet above sea level, Mount Etna is the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps. It is 2 1/2 times the height of Mount Vesuvius which took out Pompeii for those of you who have forgotten your world history.

Mount Etna is estimated to be around 700,000 years old. Whew! And it still has energy to spew lava, ash, and rocks? Despite its advanced age, the volcano is the second most active one on Earth; only Mount Kilauea in Hawaii tops it. The reason Mount Etna is so active is because it’s situated between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. This location contributes to the volcano generating nearly constant eruptions of varying degrees.

You’d think that with constant volcanic activity, it would be dangerous to hang around Mount Etna. But this stratovolcano, one that is a composite cone rising dramatically up towards the sky, provides a great venue for skiing. In fact, two ski resorts have been built on Etna for those desiring uncrowded slopes. Hmm. Perhaps those slopes are uncrowded for a reason. Hello! It’s an active volcano! Hope those skiers can fly down the slopes if some lava starts flowing towards them.

Despite the danger associated with volcanic eruptions, the Sicilians greatly benefit from Etna’s volcanic activity. The volcanic soil is fertile and supports extensive agriculture; vineyards and orchards (apple and citrus trees) cover the volcano’s lower slopes. Red and white wines produced from grapes grown on the volcanic slopes are some of the most popular of Sicilian wines.

In addition to the benefit agriculture derives from the volcanic activity, Sicily also rakes in big tourism bucks from the presence of Mount Etna. Besides skiing, backpacking and hiking are popular for tourists. For those who are less physically active, taking pictures of the mighty mount and sightseeing on a train going around the volcano’s 40 km diameter base are also fun. What an exciting rail ride; the train passengers might be coming around the mountain when the lava comes.

The most recent eruption of Mount Etna affects a number of Sicilian municipalities. The border of ten of them meet at the summit of Mount Etna. Volcanic ash, which reached an altitude of 30,000 feet, has blanketed nearby towns requiring lots and lots of dusting. Besides volcanic ash raining down, rocks have fallen from the sky on them as well.

Fortunately, no lava has threatened Sicilian residents. The fiery rivers of glowing lava have rolled down the eastern slope of Mount Etna towards the Bove Valley, an area which is three miles wide and five miles long. For good reason, this valley is uninhabited. No one could afford homeowner’s insurance there, I’m sure.

The lava which the mammoth volcano emits is known as primitive magma. That characterization has nothing to do with cavemen, but it does mean that the magma’s composition has changed little compared to what is found in the Earth’s mantle where it was formed. Since the lava is coming from a deep place, it has a greater charge of gas resulting in amazingly tall lava fountains. The flaming lava lights up the Sicilian night sky with brilliant oranges and red, providing a natural night light for the townsfolk residing below.

The burning rivers of lava flowing down the volcano’s side may be the basis for its name. Although there are several views on how Etna got its name, one thought is that it comes from a Greek word meaning “I burn.” That explanation is appealing to me. Burn baby, burn. Volcano inferno! And with millions of tons of lava coming forth from Etna, it’s a liquid inferno.

Although prior eruptions of Mount Etna have cause death and destruction, the current eruption has so far produced no injuries or loss of life. Certainly air quality has suffered with the ash being produced though. The amount of ash in the air has posed a danger for flying in the area. Thus, the airport in Catania, eastern Sicily’s largest city, has been forced to close at times. At least a volcano’s eruption is a reason passengers can accept for causing a flight delay.

In the past, it has come down to man versus the magma-producing mountain. Death and destruction was averted in 1992 when soldiers employed controlled explosions to divert lava streaming down Mount Etna’s slopes with the town of Zafferana in its path. Humans responded to the explosive volcanic eruptions with some manmade explosions.

Life on Earth will inevitably involve threats from nature for mankind. The natural foe may be as big as Mount Etna or as small as a coronavirus. Man must rise to these challenges or cease to exist. Volcanoes haven’t taken us out yet, so let’s enjoy the beauty of huge Mount Etna’s eruptions while giving healthy respect to this natural threat. And we need to keep a wary eye on the tiny coronavirus while we are at it.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are you more concerned about a volcanic eruption or being infected by the coronavirus? Is it foolhardy to build ski resorts on the side of an active volcano? Would you visit a ski resort on Mount Etna if you had the opportunity? Why or why not? We can come up with a vaccine against the coronavirus, but what can we do to protect ourselves from volcanic eruptions?