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: https://www.yahoo.com/now/video-tsunami-hit-tongas-coast-214945921.html
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.
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?