How the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption highlights the risk Australia faces

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In the wake of Tonga’s chaotic volcanic eruption and tsunami, a volcanologist has warned Australia should be better prepared as the region could experience a much larger explosion ‘without warning’.

Australia needs to better coordinate early warning systems and emergency services so travelers can be ready in the unlikely event of a “super colossal” eruption nearby, said Heather Handley, a volcanologist at Monash University.

At least three people died after the eruption of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai on Saturday, which led to a tsunami that hit the Tongan archipelago, covering the islands with volcanic ash and debris.

Although a tsunami warning was issued for Australia on Saturday night and authorities warned people in Sydney to stay out of the ocean, thousands ignored the plea on a warm Sunday.

In the wake of the chaotic Tongan volcanic eruption and tsunami, a volcanologist has warned that Australia must be better prepared as the region could experience a much larger explosion (Pictured, a plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image)

In the wake of the chaotic Tongan volcanic eruption and tsunami, a volcanologist has warned that Australia must be better prepared as the region could experience a much larger explosion (Pictured, a plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted in this satellite image)

Although a tsunami warning was issued for Australia on Saturday night and authorities warned people in Sydney to stay out of the ocean, thousands ignored the plea on a warm Sunday (pictured, a lifesaver at Bondi Beach)

Although a tsunami warning was issued for Australia on Saturday night and authorities warned people in Sydney to stay out of the ocean, thousands ignored the plea on a warm Sunday (pictured, a lifesaver at Bondi Beach)

Although a tsunami warning was issued for Australia on Saturday night and authorities warned people in Sydney to stay out of the ocean, thousands ignored the plea on a warm Sunday (pictured, a lifesaver at Bondi Beach)

Australia needs to better coordinate early warning systems and emergency services so they can be ready if a massive volcano erupts nearby, said volcanologist Heather Handley of Monash University (pictured)

Australia needs to better coordinate early warning systems and emergency services so they can be ready if a massive volcano erupts nearby, said volcanologist Heather Handley of Monash University (pictured)

Australia needs to better coordinate early warning systems and emergency services so they can be ready if a massive volcano erupts nearby, said volcanologist Heather Handley of Monash University (pictured)

The volcano risk near us – and in Australia

The Australian mainland has two ‘active’ volcanic areas, both of which have erupted since Australia was populated.

One was centered on Mt Gambier in South Australia, which erupted about 5,000 years ago with a similar force to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. The other is Kinrara in northeastern Queensland.

Both would be less likely to produce a seven on the volcanic explosion index.

The most violent volcanic eruption in the past 70,000 years occurred across the Tasman Sea near Taupo, New Zealand, about 2,400 years ago.

It has erupted 28 times in 26,000 years, with the Oruanui eruption scoring an eight on the VEI scale.

Some of the damage in the Tonga archipelago is ‘catastrophic’, including on the islands of Atata and Mango. A shortage of clean water now threatens the health of thousands.

Although Hunga Tonga was one of the largest eruptions in recent times and looked terrifying on satellite images, early estimates say the power was between four and five on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

There are “hundreds” of active volcanoes in Asia-Pacific that can reach a seven on the VEI, which could kill thousands and cause millions of dollars in damage, Ms Handley said.

She confirmed that an eruption could happen “with little warning.”

“Indonesia alone has 129 active volcanoes, if you look at Vanuatu, Tonga, New Zealand have many volcanoes on our north and east sides that are capable of [damaging] eruptions.’

The last volcano to reach a seven on the VEI was Mount Tambora, in Sumatra, Indonesia in 1815, killing 88,000 people.

The VEI scale runs from 1 to 8, with each number being 10 times more powerful than the previous one.

Ms Handley says that the Asia-Pacific region experiences a category seven VEI event on average every 400 years – described on the scale as a “super colossal” eruption.

New Zealand has had a multi-agency research program called Devora since 2008 aimed at preparing Auckland for a volcano, coordinating the government, emergency services and military.

It even ran a simulation of a volcanic eruption to assess readiness in New Zealand’s largest city.

The eruption at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai near Tonga, January 14, 2022, can be seen in a video gran showing the huge plume of ash and steam rising from the ocean

The eruption at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai near Tonga, January 14, 2022, can be seen in a video gran showing the huge plume of ash and steam rising from the ocean

The eruption at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai near Tonga on January 15, 2022 can be seen in a video showing the huge plume of ash and steam rising from the ocean

A photo taken from a military reconnaissance plane shows a Tongan village inundated with ash, while the beach shows signs of water damage where tsunami waves washed up after the massive volcanic eruption over the weekend

A photo taken from a military reconnaissance plane shows a Tongan village inundated with ash, while the beach shows signs of water damage where tsunami waves washed up after the massive volcanic eruption over the weekend

A photo taken from a military reconnaissance plane shows a Tongan village inundated with ash, while the beach shows signs of water damage where tsunami waves washed up after the massive volcanic eruption over the weekend

Ms Handley says Australia could be better prepared by issuing tsunami warnings based on volcanic eruptions, not just earthquakes.

Currently, the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center is issuing warnings based on seismologists’ predictions of “potential for an identified submarine earthquake.”

If no earthquake is detected, no warning will be issued.

‘We need to do a little bit more to prepare as Australia is surrounded by large volcanic areas capable of major volcanic eruptions, as we have just seen,’ said Ms Handley.

‘Outside of Australia, eruptions can occur that affect Australia.

‘We need to think about what the consequences would be?

‘Which areas would be affected, which emergency services should we bring together? How would they interact?

“We have the right systems in place to bring all those people together to manage the dangers so it doesn’t turn into chaos.”

Northern Australia has been hit by a volcanic ash cloud from Tonga.

Spectacular satellite images showed Hunga Tonga's massive eruption from space

Spectacular satellite images showed Hunga Tonga's massive eruption from space

Spectacular satellite images showed Hunga Tonga’s massive eruption from space

In 2011, ash from Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption spewed ash over the region.

The Australian mainland also has two ‘active’ volcanic regions, both of which have erupted since Australia was populated.

One was centered on Mt Gambier in South Australia, which erupted about 5,000 years ago with a similar force to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. The other is Kinrara in northeastern Queensland.

Both would be less likely to produce a seven VEI rating.

A volcano has a lifespan of millions of years and is considered “active” if it has erupted in the last 10,000 years.

The most violent volcanic eruption in the past 70,000 years took place across the Tasman Sea near Taupo about 2,400 years ago.

It has erupted 28 times in 26,000 years, with the Oruanui eruption scoring an eight on the VEI scale.

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