Lasting devastation from Tonga volcano eruption revealed in satellite images

Tonga's volcanic eruption has left behind damage so severe that satellites can see it from space.

On Saturday (Jan. 15), the volcano erupted on the island Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga after it began brewing a couple of days earlier. It was the volcano's second explosive event in two months, and this eruption was seven times as powerful as the previous eruption in December, with its consequences reaching out thousands of miles across planet Earth

"A volcanic mushroom plume was released reaching the stratosphere and extending radially covering all Tonga Islands, generating tsunami waves rising up to 15 meters [49 feet], hitting the west coasts of Tongatapu Islands, 'Eua, and Ha'apai Islands," Tongan government officials wrote in a statement

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In new satellite images from satellites operated by Maxar Technologies, you can see the devastation left behind by the eruption. While the damage is visible in these images of Tonga, which is made up of 170 different islands, the eruption has also had a serious impact on Australia and New Zealand. In addition to plumes of ash coming from the volcano, it also sparked tsunami waves that stretched even as far as Los Angeles in the U.S.

Search and rescue operations, which began Sunday (Jan. 16) morning, are still ongoing, and so far three people have been identified as having been killed by the eruption, according to the statement. First responders and a "health team" have also been deployed with items like food, water and tents, according to the statement.

In these satellite images from Maxar, you can see an overview of the volcano from before, during and after the eruption. Plumes of smoke and ash cloud the view of the island, growing and billowing out during the eruption. 

But after the main eruption on Saturday, the volcanic island appears to be almost completely underwater, as tsunami waves followed the event. 

In images of Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital on the island of Tongatapu, you can see the bustling port looking bright and busy before the eruption, but afterward, it is dark and shrouded by clouds. A similar dark aftermath can be seen in the after image of homes after the eruption.

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According to the Tongan government's statement, people continue to be evacuated from affected areas on the kingdom's different islands. The eruption hit Tonga's islands very hard, with all houses being destroyed on Mango island, only two houses remaining on Fonoifua island and "extensive damage" on Nomuka island, the statement reads. Officials continue to monitor the eruption and its effects, though volcanic activity has decreased greatly and the tsunami warning has been canceled, the statement noted.

Additionally, water supplies have compromised the safety of drinking water and officials worry that relief efforts could spread COVID-19 to the islands, which have managed to remain almost completely free of the virus during the ongoing pandemic, according to the World Health Organization

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.