Two dead, thunderers were told to stay indoors to avoid inhaling volcanic ash as scientists warn of ongoing environmental damage

Two people have died and the Tonga government is advising the public to stay indoors after the eruption of the volcano Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

About 2 inches of volcanic ash and dust have fallen on Tongatapu – Tonga’s main island – since Saturday’s eruption, which triggered tsunami warnings over the Pacific Ocean.

Ash in the air and on the ground has given rise to concern about air pollution and the potential pollution of food and water supplies, the WHO said.

Locals have been advised to drink bottled water and wear masks outdoors to avoid inhaling the ashes.

Satellite images of homes in Tonga before the volcano.  One is clear and the other is blackened with volcanic ash.
The WHO says more than 100 homes were damaged and 50 others destroyed. (Available: Satellite image / © 2022 Maxar Technologies)

“Fortunately, all health facilities at Tongatapu are fully operational and clean-up efforts have been launched,” the WHO said.

It said the first reports were that about 100 houses had been damaged and 50 completely destroyed on Tongatapu.

“Many [Tongans] remains displaced, with 89 people seeking refuge in evacuation centers on the island of ‘Eua, and many more seeking refuge with relatives, “the WHO said.

“The Ha’apai and Vava’u archipelagos… remain out of contact with the capital [Nuku’alofa]. “

There were particular concerns about the smaller and low-lying islands of Mango and Fonoi in the Ha’apai group, the WHO said.

Volcanic ash can ‘deliver long-term damage’

Scientists have warned that volcanic ash could cause long-term damage to coral reefs, erode shorelines and disrupt fishing.

Researchers have studied satellite images and looked to the past to predict the future of the remote region.

Since the first eruption, the volcano has released sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide – two gases that create acid rain when they interact with water and oxygen in the atmosphere.

With Tonga’s tropical climate, “there will likely be acid rain around Tonga for some time to come,” according to volcanologist Shane Cronin of the University of Auckland.

Acid rain causes widespread crop damage and can destroy Tongan raw materials such as taro, corn, bananas and garden vegetables.

“Depending on how long the outbreaks last, food safety can be compromised,” Professor Cronin said.

A satellite image of the volcano Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai showing flags of volcanic ash.
Scientists warn that volcanic ash could destroy the natural environment in the coming years.(Available: Satellite image / © 2022 Maxar Technologies)

Satellite images show the flag from the volcano spreading to the west, meaning that Tonga could be spared some of this acid rain, even though Fiji could then be in the way.

In a bulletin on Monday, the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs said Fiji monitored its air quality and had advised people to cover their domestic water tanks and stay indoors in case of rain.

Tonga’s exclusive economic zone of nearly 700,000 marine square kilometers is 1,000 times larger than its land area.

And most Tongans get their food – and livelihoods – from the sea.

While scientists have not yet studied on Earth, “the few images available appear to show a blanket … of ash” on land, according to Marco Brenna, a geologist from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Marine life can be ‘toxic or poisoned’

In the ocean, that ash can be harmful to marine life.

Weeks before Saturday’s eruption, Tonga Geological Services had warned that nearby seawater was contaminated with toxic volcanic discharges and that fishermen should “assume that fish in those waters are poisoned or toxic.”

Inevitably, the weekend’s huge outbreak has made the situation worse.

Turbid, ash-filled water near the volcano will deprive fish of food and wipe out spawning beds.

Some fish will perish and survivors will be forced to migrate, scientists said.

In addition, changes in the structure of the seabed may create new obstacles for fishing vessels.

“It will be a while before the same or new fishing grounds will be restored,” said Dr. Burn.

Corals ‘buried and suffocated’ by ashes

Falling ash can also stifle coral reefs, which in Tonga are the cornerstone of a tourism industry that brought in up to $ 5 million a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the eruption, Tonga’s reef was threatened by disease outbreaks and the effects of climate change, including coral bleaching and ever-stronger cyclones.

Now, “large areas of the reefs in the immediate catchment area of ​​Hunga Tonga are likely buried and suffocated by large deposits of volcanic ash,” according to Tom Schils, a marine biologist at the University of Guam who has studied volcanic eruptions and corals in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Such eruptions also release more iron into the water, which can boost the growth of blue-green algae and fungi, which further degrade the reefs.

Reefs may need to start over – a process that could take years, according to Brian Zgliczynski, a coral reef ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Species that are more tolerant of poor water quality come first,” said Dr. Zgliczynski.

Meanwhile, hard corals and fish would take longer to return, he added.

A loss of coral reefs would also affect Tonga’s ability to cope with rising water and storm surges.

This is a concern for Tonga, where climate change is causing sea levels to rise by about 6 millimeters a year, double the global average.

In a 2015 report, Tonga estimated its natural storm buffers – including coral reefs as well as coastal beach grasses and mangroves – at about $ 11 million annually.

With the latest eruption, a Tongan sea level gauge detected a 1.19-meter tsunami before stopping reporting.

Tsunamis are known to cause rapid coastal erosion.

And before the communication systems went down, videos revealed damage to man-made beach embankments.

“Coastal defense and reclaimed land can all be severely affected by the tsunami waves, leaving the islands more vulnerable,” Professor Cronin said.

ABC / wires

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