Concern for Tonga grew yesterday after thick ash across the island’s main airport runway prevented aid flights from New Zealand bringing in supplies and assistance.
A tall ash cloud has also been disrupting flights since a major undersea volcano eruption and resulting tsunami occurred on Saturday.
“There’s been a lot of challenges there with the ash cloud and the disruption to communications and so we are working together to get as much support to Tonga as we possibly can,” Australian prime minister Scott Morrisson told radio station 2GB.
In the past 24 hours, both New Zealand and Australia have been able to send military aircraft to the island and its neighbours to assess the damage, with plans to send navy ships in the coming days.
Saturday’s eruption was the latest in a recent series of volcanic activity detected at the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the South Pacific region.
According to the US Geological Survey, the blast caused the equivalent of a magnitude-5.8 earthquake, cutting internet service and power lines in Tonga from around 6.40pm on Saturday and leaving swathes of the island covered with ash.
Waves of around 2.7 feet high were seen in the capital of Nuku’alofa, which lies 65km south of the volcano.
Three deaths have been reported so far in Tonga, but remain unconfirmed by authorities.
Tsunami alerts were also issued in Australia, New Zealand, the US West Coast and Hawaii.
According to NHK, Japan Airlines cancelled 27 flights across the country in the wake of the eruption.
Flights in and out of Fiji were also affected, and meteorologists have predicted that the cloud will head towards northern Australia, which could mean further disruption to flights in the region.
“This is a pretty big event - it’s one of the more significant eruptions of the last decade at least,” Auckland-based volcanologist Professor Shane Cronin told the BBC.
“The most remarkable thing about it is how rapidly and violently it’s spread. This one was larger, a much wider lateral spread, much more ash was produced. I expect there to be many centimetres of ash that have been deposited on Tonga.”
There are particular fears about smaller island groups nearby.
“Communication with Tonga remains very limited. And I know that is causing a huge amount of anxiety for the Tongan community here,” said New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
“There has been no contact from the Ha’apai Group of islands, and we are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands - Mango and Fonoi - following surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage,” confirmed UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric yesterday.
After the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, the plumes of volcanic smoke caused the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II, with disruption to global flights continuing into May.
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