SEATTLE - 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 Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast, running through around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Washington, and Oregon's advisories have since been canceled. Hawaii's ended Saturday morning.
While the tsunami advisory was in effect for the Washington coastline, the Puget Sound area experienced only slightly rougher waves. Experts said it was highly unlikely that the advisory will be updated to include Puget Sound, as the waters lose momentum passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
No evacuations were issued in Washington, but conditions were still dangerous.
State Emergency Management warned that the first waves to move in are typically followed by even larger waves. They expected these tsunami waves to coincide with high tide, causing flooding and treacherous coastal conditions.
Just before 11 a.m., officials reported actual tsunami waves up to three feet tall hitting the coastline.
The bottom line for a tsunami advisory: Move off of the beach and out of harbors and marinas in these areas.
The Tsunami Advisory levels means 1-3' of tsunami waves above tidal and sea level.
The National Weather Service Seattle office had predicted times for the arrival of the first waves and said larger waves would follow:
Here were estimated times for Oregon:
NWS in Portland advised people to call any loved ones who are along the coast and may not have seen the warnings.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage because all internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time — about 10 minutes after problems began, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.
Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji, which presumably was damaged. The company that manages that connection, Southern Cross Cable Network, could not immediately be reached for comment.
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.
The first waves to hit the continental United States were measured at about 30 centimeters (1 foot) in Nikolski, Atka and Adak, Alaska. The wave was about 20 centimeters (.7 feet) at Monterey, California, the U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center said in a tweet.
The National Weather Service said there are reports of waves pushing boats in Hawaii. Sea level fluctuations were also beginning in Alaska and California, according to the National Tsunami Warning Center.
Beaches and piers were closed across Southern California as a precaution but the National Weather Service tweeted there were "no significant concerns about inundation." Strong rip currents were possible, however, and officials warned people to stay out of the water.
Crowds gathered at the Santa Cruz harbor early Saturday to watch water slowly rise and fall, straining boat ties on docks. There was no obvious immediate damage. In 2011, after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a series of surges cost $20 million of damage in the harbor.
"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. "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.
"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 coast, but it was not expected to cause any damage.
Tonga’s Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore. He was among the many residents who headed for higher ground.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Before an explosion, there is generally an increase in small local earthquakes at the volcano, but depending on how far it is from land, that may not be felt by residents along the shoreline, Schwaiger said.
In 2019, Tonga lost internet access for nearly two weeks when the same fiber-optic cable was severed. The director of the local cable company said at the time that a large ship may have cut the cable by dragging an anchor. Until limited satellite access was restored people couldn’t even make international calls.
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