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Ocean volcano erupts near Tonga

Tsunami advisories issued for Hawaii, Alaska, Pacific coast by The Associated Press | January 16, 2022 at 3:27 a.m.
People watch waters rise in Santa Cruz harbor in Santa Cruz, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. An undersea volcano has erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday. Following the eruption, a tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast.(AP Photo/Nic Coury)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- An undersea volcano erupted Saturday near the Pacific nation of Tonga, sending tsunami waves crashing across the shore and forcing people to rush to higher ground. Tsunami advisories were issued for Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast.

There were no immediate reports on injuries or the extent of the damage because all internet connectivity with Tonga was lost Saturday evening, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.

Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji. Southern Cross Cable Network, the company that manages the connection, did not know "if the cable is cut or just suffering power loss," chief technical officer Dean Veverka said. He said he assumed the eruption was responsible for the outage.

Tonga's Islands Business news site reported that members of the police and military evacuated King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore. He was among the many residents who headed for higher ground.

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In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves that measured 1.6 feet in Nawiliwili on Kauai island and 2.7 feet in Hanalei. The National Weather Service said there were reports of boats getting pushed up in docks, but the hazard diminished as the morning went on.

"We are relieved that there is no reported damage and only minor flooding throughout the islands," the tsunami center said, describing the situation in Hawaii. The tsunami advisory for the islands was lifted about 11 hours after the eruption more than 3,000 miles away.

On Tonga, home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas, swirling around homes, a church and other buildings. Satellite images showed an eruption, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising above the Pacific waters.

New Zealand's military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to assist if asked.

The Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami warning was declared for all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific tsunami center said waves of 2.7 feet were detected.

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

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Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December.

Satellite images captured by the company show how much the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.

"The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45% due to ashfall," Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.

After Saturday's eruption, residents in Hawaii and Alaska and along the U.S. Pacific Coast were advised to move away from the coastline to higher ground and to 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," Snider said.

He said the waves slamming ashore in Hawaii were just under the criteria for a more serious tsunami warning.

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The first waves to hit the continental United States measured about 1 foot in Nikolski and Adak, Alaska. A wave of about 0.7 feet was observed in Monterey, Calif., the U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center said in a tweet.

Beaches and piers were closed across Southern California as a precaution. The National Weather Service tweeted that there were "no significant concerns about inundation." Strong rip currents were possible, however, and officials warned people to stay out of the water.

On California's central coast, the National Weather Service reported tsunami waves up to 2.5 feet and flooding in beach parking lots at Port San Luis. About 200 miles down the coast, the waves were much smaller at Southern California's Seal Beach, according to Michael Pless, the owner of M&M Surf School.

"The waves are looking pretty flat," Pless said. "We're hoping they reopen the beach in a couple hours."

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Residents of American Samoa were alerted of a tsunami warning by local broadcasters as well as church bells that rang across the territory. An outdoor siren 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 because of strong currents and dangerous waves. In New Zealand, officials warned of possible storm surges from the eruption.

New Zealand's private forecaster, Weather Watch, tweeted that people as far away as Southland, the country's southernmost region, reported hearing sonic booms from the eruption. Others reported that many boats were damaged by a tsunami that hit a marina in Whangarei, in the Northland region.

Earlier, the Matangi Tonga news site reported that scientists observed explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it started erupting early Friday. Satellite images showed a 3-mile-wide plume rising about 12 miles into the air.

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano is about 40 miles north of the capital, Nuku'alofa. In late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a small island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

There is not a significant difference between volcanoes underwater and on land, and underwater volcanoes become bigger as they erupt, at some point usually breaching the surface, said Hans Schwaiger, a research geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

With underwater volcanoes, however, the water can add to the explosivity of the eruption as it hits the lava, Schwaiger added.

Information for this article was contributed by Jennifer McDermott, Martha Mendoza, Frank Bajak, Mari Yamaguchi, Fili Sagapolutele, Jon Gambrell and Christopher Weber of The Associated Press.

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