Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The volcano in Tonga is still erupting which could make clean up difficult


Now to the South Pacific, where surveillance flights are assessing damage on the island nation of Tonga following the weekend eruption of a massive underwater volcano. No deaths have been reported so far. But as reporter Ashley Westerman tells us, experts say the volcano continues to erupt, just at a lower intensity, which could make cleanup difficult.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: When the 13-mile wide Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted on Saturday, it was intense. The U.S. tsunami warning system recorded it as a 7.6 magnitude earthquake. It sent a plume of volcanic ash nearly 20 feet in the air, an atmospheric pressure wave across the world and tsunami waves all the way to the shores of the western U.S. The eruption was felt and heard by people hundreds of miles away.

Celeste Brash and her husband Josh own a pearl farm on the Ahe Atoll in French Polynesia, nearly 2,000 miles from the volcano. She says the eruption sounded like thunder.

CELESTE BRASH: We heard these deep rumbling sounds when we were asleep that were so loud that they woke us up. And he was really worried that maybe a boat had gotten loose and was going up on the reef. And I thought maybe they were just exceptionally big waves.

WESTERMAN: The powerful eruption prompted Tonga to issue a tsunami warning across its entire archipelago. Phone lines and internet are still largely down throughout most of Tonga, knocked out by the eruption. But details have started to eke out on social media. Using satellite internet, New Zealand High Commissioner Peter Lund posted Sunday on Facebook that there are widespread power outages. He also wrote about tsunami waves walloping the west coast of the main island of Tongatapu, battering the capital's waterfront.

The eruption was a rare event, says David Tappin, a former geologist with the Tongan government. And the volcano continues to erupt, just at a much lower intensity.

DAVID TAPPIN: Usually, these eruptions last maybe a month or so. I would perhaps say it's unlikely there's going to be another tsunami, but we just don't know.

WESTERMAN: Tappin says because of this uncertainty, the coming days will be hard as they start to recover. If not cleaned up quickly, the fallen ash could contaminate their drinking water. And, he says, there's a risk of more underwater earthquakes.

TAPPIN: Right now it's an ongoing situation. I think we have to be cautious and be aware that our knowledge base is limited.

WESTERMAN: New Zealand and Australia have combined efforts to send aid. Meanwhile, Tongan officials tell regional media that restoring power and making sure residents have clean drinking water are the priorities right now.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say the volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash nearly 20 feet in the air. In fact, the plume was nearly 20 miles in the air.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 21, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we incorrectly say the volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash nearly 20 feet in the air. In fact, the plume was nearly 20 miles in the air.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.