A tsunami alert has been issued on Sunday morning for half of Australia’s east coast after a massive underwater volcano erupted in the South Pacific, triggering powerful waves that inundated Tonga and shut down communication with the island.
Coastal areas of Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania have been warned to “get out of the water and move away from the immediate
water’s edge” amid the threat of large waves, dangerous rips and strong ocean currents.
Tsunami alerts were also issued for New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Lord Howe and Norkfolk Island, Japan and parts of the USA and Canada.
It comes after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, 65km from Tonga’s capital, erupted under the ocean on Saturday afternoon and was heard across the Pacific islands and as far as the USA.
Satellite images showed the huge explosion which sent a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters.
The volcano was erupting intermittently in late December but the latest event was about seven times more powerful than previously and lasted at least eight minutes, Tonga Geological Services said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says images of the volcanic eruption near Tonga are “hugely concerning” and agencies are still trying to establish full communications with the country.
Communications in all of Tonga were cut off as a result of Saturday’s eruption, making any assessment difficult, Ardern said on Sunday.
But the NZ defence force and foreign ministry were working to establish what was needed and how New Zealand could help, she said.
Local media on the island chain reported a downpour of ash, the flooding of properties and disruptions to phone and power connections but the extent of the devastation was unclear by late evening.
The Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops moved Tonga’s King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore.
He was among the many residents who raced to higher ground while others were taken completely unaware as a large wave crashed up beaches and into homes.
Videos posted to Twitter show unsuspecting beachgoers running to escape the ocean surging over everything in its path and cars fleeing the wave as it slams streets and homes.
The New Zealand Defence Force said it was monitoring the situation in Tonga and stood ready to assist if requested by the government but that so far no request had been made, according to Radio New Zealand.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said a tsunami wave height of 1.27m was observed on Norfolk Island at 9pm AEDT and an 82cm wave was registered on the Gold Coast at 10.54pm AEDT on Saturday.
It said 1.10m-high waves were being recorded at Ned’s Beach on Lord Howe Island about 11pm AEDT and a 50cm surge was observed at Hobart’s Derwent Park about 11.44pm AEDT.
The bureau earlier detected a 1.19m wave in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital.
The statement said tsunami waves are more powerful than the same size beach waves.
“There will be many waves and the first wave may not be the largest.”
In Queensland the marine warning is in place for Sandy Cape to Point Danger including the Fraser Island coast, Sunshine Coast waters, Moreton Bay and Gold Coast waters.
“While evacuations are not necessary for Marine Threat areas, people in these areas are advised to get out of the water and move away from the immediate water’s edge,” said the BOM’s alert.
In Victoria a marine warning is in place from Lakes Entrance to 60 nautical miles east of Gabo Island including the East Gippsland coast.
The marine warning also covers Macquarie Island and parts of Tasmania including the northern tip of Flinders Island to South East Cape, including east of Flinders Island, Banks Strait and Franklin Sound, the upper east coast, the lower east coast, the southeast coast, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Derwent Estuary, Frederick Henry Bay, Norfolk Bay and Storm Bay.
A spokesperson for the Australian government said initial assessments are underway and the Department of Foreign Affairs was working to ensure Australians in Tonga were safe and accounted for.
“Tonga is part of our Pacific family and our thoughts are with the entire community dealing with the impact of the volcanic eruption and tsunami,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“The Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs are monitoring the situation and Australia stands ready to provide support to Tonga if requested.”
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.