An undersea volcano erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending large tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground. A tsunami advisory was in effect for Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage as communications with the small island nation remained cut off hours after the eruption.
In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves slamming ashore from half a meter (a foot) in Nawiliwili, Kauai, to 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) in Hanalei. “We are relieved that there is no reported damage and only minor flooding throughout the islands,” the center said, describing the situation in Hawaii.
On Tonga, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.
New Zealand's military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to assist if asked.
Satellite images showed a huge eruption, a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters.
The Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami warning was declared for all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific tsunami center showed waves of 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) had been detected.
In Hawaii, Alaska and along the U.S. Pacific coast, residents were asked to move away from the coastline to higher ground and pay attention to specific instructions from their local emergency management officials, said Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska.
“We don’t issue an advisory for this length of coastline as we’ve done — I’m not sure when the last time was — but it really isn’t an everyday experience,” he said. “I hope that elevates the importance and severity for our citizens.”
He said the waves already slamming ashore in Hawaii were just under the criteria for a more serious tsunami warning, with measurements at 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) in Hanalei and Maui. Waves of about 91 centimeters (3 feet) or above would trigger a warning. Snider said they’re currently expecting waves of 30 centimeters (1 foot) to 61 centimeters (2 feet) along the Pacific coast.
Snider said residents in these areas should expect waves and strong and unusual currents for many hours and there could be some low areas that are inundated, such as marinas and harbors.
“The important thing here is the first wave may not be the largest. We could see this play out for several hours,” he added. “It looks like everything will stay below the warning level but it’s difficult to predict because this is a volcanic eruption and we’re set up to measure earthquake or seismic-driven sea waves.”
Residents of American Samoa were alerted of the tsunami warning by local broadcasters as well as church bells that rang territory-wide. An outdoor siren warning system was out of service. Those living along the shoreline quickly moved to higher ground.
As night fell, there were no reports of any damage and the Hawaii-based tsunami center canceled the alert.
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 Japan Meteorological Agency said there may be a slight swelling of the water along the Japanese coasts, but it was not expected to cause any damage.
The Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated Tonga's King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore. He was among the many residents who headed 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 video showing waves crashing ashore.
“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”
Earlier, the Matangi Tonga news site reported that scientists observed massive explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it started erupting early Friday. Satellite images showed a 5-kilometer (3 mile) -wide plume rising into the air to about 20 kilometers (12 miles).
More than 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand, officials were warning of storm surges from the eruption.
The National Emergency Management Agency said some parts of New Zealand could expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore following a large 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 air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Tonga is home to about 105,000 people.