Tonga Volcanic Eruption Highlights the Crucial Role of Satellites During Natural Disasters

The only undersea fiber optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world was severed during the volcanic eruption.

Before and after satellite images of the town of Nuku’alofa, Tonga captured by Maxar Technologies. The town covered in ash after the eruption. Maxar Technologies

Significant damages are being reported from Tonga this week, days after a huge volcano nearby violently erupted, causing earthquakes, a tsunami and a towering ash cloud that covered the entire Pacific island nation.

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located just 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, erupted on Saturday night. It was the biggest volcanic eruption recorded on Earth in more than 30 years.

Communication was completely cut off in the first hours after the eruption because the only undersea fiber optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world was severed during the disaster. A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga was also damaged, the Associated Press later reported.

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During the crisis so far, satellites, which sit safely above the Earth’s atmosphere, have been a crucial, and sometimes the only tool for the outside world to get a glimpse of the latest in Tonga, a country with a population of about 106,000.

The first clear view of the spectacular eruption was captured by the Japanese weather satellite Himawari 8. The images showed a plume of ash, steam and gas spewing up to 13 miles into the atmosphere like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific.

San Francisco-based Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano since late December after a smaller vent began erupting. December’s eruption increased the above-sea surface area of the volcano by nearly 45 percent due to ashfall, changing its appearance drastically in only a matter of days. Scientists thought the volcano was quieting down, Planet Labs said in a blog post days before the January 15 eruption.

More satellite images of Tonga released Monday and Tuesday, including those captured by Planet Labs and Colorado-based Maxar Technologies, showed the striking difference before and after the eruption. Maxar’s images of Nuku’alofa showed the capital city covered in thick volcanic ash and smog after the eruption and houses and public facilities damaged by tsunami.

The only people in Tonga who have managed to contact the outside world are those who have access to satellite phones, although connection is unstable due to the thick ash cloud blocking signals from time to time, according to Tonga Cable Ltd.’s Chairman Samiuela Fonua.

Natural disaster experts point out that the crisis highlights just how vulnerable cable-reliant telecommunication infrastructure is for remote countries like Tonga.

“The events in Tonga once again highlight how fragile the global undersea cable network is and how quickly it can go offline,” Dale Dominey-Howes, a professor of hazards and disaster risk sciences at the University of Sydney, wrote in an article for United Press International published Tuesday.

“Cables cluster in narrow corridors and pass between so-called critical ‘choke points'” such as Hawaiian islands, the Suez Canal and Guam, Dominey-Howes explained, “which leave them vulnerable to a number of natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions, underwater landslides, earthquakes and tsunamis.”

Tonga is particularly vulnerable to this type of disruption because there is only one cable connecting the country to Fiji, located about 500 miles away.

“This isn’t the first time a natural disaster has cut off critical submarine cables, and it won’t be the last,” Dominey-Howes warned. “Governments and the telecommunication companies should find ways to diversify the way we communicate, such as by using more satellite-based systems and other technologies.”

Tonga Volcanic Eruption Highlights the Crucial Role of Satellites During Natural Disasters