On the morning of January 15, 2022, a volcanic eruption unlike any other in recorded history rocked the island nation of Tonga. Located near the equator in the South Pacific, Tonga consists of roughly 150 small islands and approximately 100,000 inhabitants.
The tsunami that followed the eruption reached the shores of countries as far away as Peru and Japan – while other areas, including our own King County, issued tsunami warnings discouraging people from visiting local beaches and waterfronts.
As a Tongan American with roots deeply embedded in this small island country, I mourn for the people, land, and sea that I once called home. I can still feel the dirt roads beneath my feet and the warm sea breeze on my skin as I played with my cousins. I remember swimming around my Grandpa Tofa’s boat – shipwrecked on Pangaimotiu island – marveling at the mischievous teenagers brave enough to use it as a diving board! The boat is now a beloved landmark, which can be seen on Google Earth!
With a grateful heart, I know that no volcano can destroy my memories. However, the devastating impact this event has had on the lives and wellbeing of the Tongan people is monumental.
Referred to as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, this extraordinary volcanic eruption was felt, seen, and heard around the world. Existing almost entirely underwater and only 500 feet below the Earth’s crust, this particular disaster has shaken the very foundation of what scientists know about submarine volcanoes. News reports have described the volcanic event as the equivalent of “hundreds of Hiroshima bombs”¹ or “10 Megatons of TNT,”² which produced the largest plume³ of smoke and ash ever recorded.
Volcanologists, geologists, and other scientists describe the Tonga eruption as the loudest, most explosive event in over a century – one that sent shockwaves around the globe multiple times. Additionally, NASA describes it as the largest volcanic eruption ever documented from space! Interestingly, some reports suggest this event could even provide insight into the formation of other planets in our solar system, with one report⁴ comparing the aftermath of the eruption to conditions on Mars.
A volcano’s devastation
The impact of the eruption is extensive. United Nations officials report more than 80% of Tongans have been adversely affected by the eruption. Hundreds of people are now experiencing displacement and homelessness and Tonga’s agricultural economy is suffering immensely. It’s estimated that “60 to 70 per cent of livestock-rearing households have seen their animals perish, grazing land damaged, or water supplies contaminated.”⁵ Fishing is no longer safe, and Tongans are advised to avoid eating or drinking from local water sources. Damage assessment teams are still trying to understand the multi-layered impact of the blast, including the risk of acid rain.
Connection to the outside world has also been a challenge for the people of Tonga. For several days following the explosion, Tongans were completely isolated from the rest of the world. Damage to their communications infrastructure hindered people’s ability to communicate with family and friends living locally and abroad.
The agonizing wait for information regarding loved ones has created an additional layer of trauma for survivors of this epic disaster. It was at least four days before I learned that my family was safe. I’m still awaiting news about my family home in the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa. This is the home where I spent so much of my early life and where I first learned to speak Tongan.
My dad served in the Peace Corps in Tonga well before he met my mom, who was born in Tungua, one of the islands in the Ha’apai group. He told me many stories about the village he lived in, swimming with sharks, teaching in local schools, and his fondness for Tongan culture, food, and people.
Take action for Tonga
My connection to Tonga is more than just the blood coursing through my veins; it’s also the experiences, memories, and long line of ancestors who helped get me to where I am today. As such, I am compelled to act! As more information gets out of Tonga, we’re learning that entire villages have been wiped out and families are struggling to find refuge and the means to rebuild their homes.
Relief efforts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, and the U.S. are underway, but as ships arrive to deliver supplies, the threat of COVID-19 becomes very real for the Tongan people. Previously COVID-free, Tonga now has at least 80 confirmed cases since the arrival of relief aid.
Tonga doesn’t have the healthcare system or capacity to care for 100,000 sick people, which is what could happen if precautions such as social distancing are not practiced consistently. Culturally speaking, the concept of social distancing is counterintuitive to our way of life since we’re a collectivist society and social gatherings are the norm!
The long-term impacts of Hunga Ha’apai-Hunga Tonga are quite dire. The damage to Tonga’s food and water supply is heartbreaking, especially for those living on more remote islands. People’s sources of nourishment are now toxic and life threatening. The country is in crisis and needs all the help it can get to heal the people and restore balance to the land and sea.
Please consider donating to one of the following relief efforts:
- Tonga Tsunami relief by Pita Taufatofua
- Disaster Cash Assistance for Citizens of Tonga
- Help to Tonga Tsunami
A people’s enduring resiliency
Despite the devastation to our beautiful island country, Tongans are known for their toughness and resiliency. Fun Fact: Tonga has NEVER been colonized! Is it because we’re badass survivors? I’d like to think so! However, it’s more likely that we have a special relationship with the Earth and waters that surround our islands.
As an example, one of the tsunamis to hit Tonga swept one man out to sea, where he survived 27 straight hours before making it back to the island safely! You might be wondering how that’s possible. Tongans have an intimate understanding and familiarity with the ocean’s currents, tides, and movement – he survived because he knew he needed to “go with the flow” (literally).
Tongans use dance, natural resources, storytelling, and rounds of Kava⁶ (ha!) to move through the world. If a massive volcanic eruption can’t take us down, nothing ever will! What’s especially remarkable is how few casualties there are given the magnitude of this unprecedented global event. I’m so proud to be Tongan, and despite what happened to my ancestral home, I carry forward the warrior spirit that has come to define my work as an advocate for social, economic, and earth justice!
1) Tonga eruption equivalent to ‘hundreds of Hiroshima bombs,’ NASA says, Live Science, January 25, 2022
2) NASA scientists estimate Tonga blast at 10 megatons, NPR, January 18, 2022
4) Aftermath of the Biggest Volcano Eruption Ever Caught on Tape from Space – Tonga, Astrum on YouTube, January 22, 2022
4) Tonga volcano eruption produced largest ash cloud ever recorded, Nasa says, Independent, February 18, 2022
5) 80 per cent of Tonga population impacted by eruption and tsunami, United Nations, January 20, 2022
6) Kava, Wikipedia