Undersea volcanic eruption spreads tsunami alerts throughout Pacific Rim basin

A massive undersea volcanic eruption triggered a weekend tsunami alert and sent surges of waves up Vancouver Island inlets on Sunday morning.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is an undersea volcano located in the Tonga region of the South Pacific, more than 9,000 kilometres from Vancouver Island. According to reports, the volcano has been active in recent weeks, having previously erupted on Dec. 20 and Jan. 13.

But the Jan. 15 eruption was massive. It is considered a once-in-a-thousand-year event for a volcano according to scientists. Its effects were felt as far away as Alaska, with US coastal locations reporting hearing the sonic boom.

Satellite imagery shows a shock wave emanating from the undersee blast. Reports state that the sonic boom was heard in parts of New Zealand, which is more than 1,300 miles away, travelling as far as the United Kingdom.

The eruption occurred at 4:10 GMT on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 15, triggering tsunami warnings in Pacific coastal communities. While islands in the Tonga suffered significant tsunami damage, regions further away, like coastal British Columbia. had their tsunami warnings downgraded to advisories.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the following day that no deaths or injuries in the region had been reported, but full assessments were not possible because lines of communication were cut due to the eruption and subsequent tsunami. Damages to foreshore infrastructure and boats on islands near the volcano are significant.

Across the Pacific in British Columbia, Mike Farnworth, minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General issued a statement.

“Emergency Management BC immediately activated the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre, and all provincial regional operation centres on the coast,” stated Farnworth. “The agency has also been supporting local governments and First Nations with updates and a series of coordination calls.”

Closer to home, Nuu-chah-nulth communities responded to the tsunami warning by notifying residents. But by the time the waves were predicted to hit the west coast of Vancouver Island, the tsunami warning had been downgraded to an advisory. People were told to stay away from the shoreline and to watch for surges in currents.

In Anacla, Huu-ay-aht citizen Rachel Young captured remarkable video of a series of waves surging up Pachena River on Sunday morning.

Further north at Yuquot, Mowachaht/Muchalaht resident Darrell Williams was walking with his dogs along the beach about 10:30 Sunday morning when he noticed larger-than-usual waves rolling in.

“The swell was a good sized one and we ran up the trail just in time,” Williams told Ha-Shilth-Sa, adding that his small dog almost got pulled into the ocean.

The following day, Williams went for another walk along the beach. He normally walks the beach daily, collecting trash that has drifted ashore.

“I found a lot of plastic bottles,” he said, noticing that the beverage bottles had Asian labeling. “I only had one bag, but what I found I put up higher so I can pick them up when I get gas for ATV and more garbage bags.”

According to National Geographic, there are more than 1,500 active volcanoes around the world.                                                           

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