An undersea volcano has erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga, sending a tsunami across the shore and sending people to higher ground.
Key points: The volcanic eruption caused a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, the Bureau of Meteorology issued a tsunami warning for parts of eastern Australia, and large waves and flooding were seen in New Zealand and the United States.
The eruption cut off the internet for Tonga, leaving friends and family members around the world anxiously trying to reach out to find out any injuries and the extent of the damage.
Even government websites and other official sources remained without any updates.
Satellite images showed a massive eruption on Saturday local time, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like mushrooms over the blue Pacific waters.
A thundering thud could be heard as far away as Alaska.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, Right and left arrows to search, Up and down arrows for volume. Residents of Tonga rush to seek shelter as big waves crash on the shore.
Tsunami warnings were issued for Hawaii, Alaska and the US Pacific coast.
The US Geological Survey estimated that the explosion caused an earthquake of magnitude 5.8.
Scientists have said that tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Meteorological services in Tonga said that a tsunami warning had been issued in all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific Tsunami Center said waves of up to 80 centimeters were detected.
Rachel Afiki Taumoibo, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hopes the relatively low level of the tsunami will allow most people to reach safety, although she is concerned about those who live on the islands closest to the volcano.
She said she has not yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that only the infrastructure was damaged and that people were able to reach the higher ground,” she said.
Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva in Fiji, which is presumably damaged.
All internet connection with Tonga was cut off at about 6:40 pm local time, said Doug Madhuri, director of internet analysis at network intelligence firm Kintech.
The company that manages the connection does not yet know “whether the cable is broken or just experiencing a power loss,” chief technical officer Dean Feverka said, Southern Cross Cable Network.
Fiji-based news website Business Islands news reported that a convoy of police and military forces evacuated Tonga King Tubu VI from his palace near the shore.
He was among the many residents who headed to higher regions.
In Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, a video posted on social media showed big waves washing the beach in coastal areas, swirling around houses, a church and other buildings.
The New Zealand military said it was monitoring the situation and was standing by and ready to assist if requested.
Tsunami waves damaged boats as far away as New Zealand (Tanya White, Northern Advcate, NZME via AP)
In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves measuring 50 cm in Nawiliweli and Kauai and 80 cm in Hanalei.
The National Weather Service said there were reports of boats being pushed into the docks, but there were no reports of damage, only minor flooding across the islands.
Volcanic eruptions create new land
The eruption of the Hongga Tonga-Hung Hapai volcano was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs has been monitoring the island in recent days after a new volcanic eruption there began to emerge in late December.
Satellite images captured by the company show how the volcano has radically shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
“It appears that the area of the island has expanded by about 45 per cent due to Ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.
The first waves to hit the continental United States were 59 cm in size in Alaska, while a wave of about 79 cm was seen in California, according to the US National Tsunami Warning Center.
A tsunami inundated a parking lot in Santa Cruz, US (Shmuel Thler via AP)
On California’s central coast, the National Weather Service reported tsunami waves of up to 1.2 meters and flooding in beach parking lots in Port St. Louis.
Crowds gathered at the Port of Santa Cruz, California, to watch the waters rise and the boat ties descend on the docks.
Law enforcement tried to keep people away when the big booms began around 7:30 in the morning.
Crowds gathered on some US beaches to see larger-than-normal waves hitting the shore (AP Photo: Nic Coury)
In 2011, after the Japanese earthquake, a series of sudden surges caused $20 million in damage to the port.
Although experienced surfers may think that waves hitting the West Coast are hardly high enough to qualify for a swell, the National Weather Service has warned that tsunamis cause deceptive heights of water strong enough to pull people out to sea.
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