Underwater volcano erupts in the Pacific Ocean, islanders rush to escape tsunami

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – An underwater volcano erupted spectacularly near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending huge tsunami waves crashing across the coast and people rushing to higher ground.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage as communication with the small nation remained problematic. Video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.

The New Zealand military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to assist if requested. Satellite images showed a huge eruption, a cloud of ash, steam and gas rising like a sponge over the blue Pacific waters.

This satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an underwater volcanic eruption near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday.
This satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an underwater volcanic eruption near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday.

Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami alert was in effect for the entire archipelago, and data from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center showed that waves of 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) had been detected.

Residents of American Samoa were warned of the tsunami alert by local broadcasters as well as church bells ringing throughout the territory. An outdoor siren warning system was out of order. Those living along the coastline quickly moved to higher terrain.

As night fell, there were no reports of injuries and the Hawaii-based tsunami center canceled the alarm.

Authorities in the nearby island nations of Fiji and Samoa also issued warnings, telling people to avoid the shoreline due to strong currents and dangerous waves. The Japanese Meteorological Agency said there may be a slight swelling of the water along the Japanese shores, but it was not expected to cause any damage.

The news site Islands Business reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated Tonga’s King Tupou VI from his palace near the coast. He was among the many inhabitants who set course for higher ground.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the latest in a series of spectacular eruptions.

A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted a video showing waves crashing ashore.

“Can literally hear the volcanic eruption, it sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and small pebbles, darkness covers the sky.”

Earlier, news site Matangi Tonga reported that scientists observed massive explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it began erupting early Friday. Satellite images showed a 5-kilometer-wide flag rising in the air to about 20 kilometers (12 miles).

More than 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand, officials warned of storm surge from the eruption.

The National Emergency Management Agency said some parts of New Zealand could expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable waves off the coast after a major volcanic eruption.”

The volcano is located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital Nuku’alofa. Back in late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a small new island and disrupted international flights to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Tonga is home to about 105,000 people.

Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi of Tokyo and Fili Sagapolutele of Pago Pago, American Samoa, contributed to this report.

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