The volcanic explosion in Tonga

by Yazmin Macias / Sep 16, 2022



In this kid-friendly podcast, Worth Noting delves into hot topics in the world currently. Host Matthew Winner dives into each topic and brings information to the front. This episode dives into the volcanic eruption that affected the people of Tonga. 


This post has been lightly edited for clarity.  

Matthew: The Kingdom of Tonga in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, east of Australia and Fiji, is made up of around 170 islands. On January 15, 2022, several islands were impacted by a massive eruption of an undersea volcano. The effects this volcano had on the islands as well as on the people of Tonga are Worth Noting.

The Kingdom of Tonga is no stranger to volcanic eruptions. That is, after all, how most islands in the Pacific Ocean have formed. 


Volcanoes form along fault lines on the ocean floor as the tectonic plates shift and magma pushes through the earth’s crust. When the magma cools, it hardens and becomes new earth. As the volcano erupts again in the future, additional layers of magma form. Over time, this can create new land masses, islands. 


New islands are formed, changed, and sometimes destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Living near or on a volcanic island can mean needing to be constantly vigilant beneath the threat of the dormant volcano. But volcanic ash can also help to produce fertile soil, allowing an abundance of plant life to thrive.


Some people around the world who live on or near volcanic islands are accustomed to living in harmony with this natural threat. Some volcanic eruptions are relatively contained or mild and do not pose immediate threat to the people around them.  


But, as with other natural disasters, volcanoes are unpredictable and a volcanic eruption under the right conditions has the power to be felt around the world.  




The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai undersea volcano began erupting on January 13 followed by another powerful blast on January 14. But it was the massive eruption on the following day that sent ash and dust upwards 25 miles into the atmosphere, creating a cloud that was visible from space.


This volcano is one scientists have been watching. In 2015, an eruption connected the two islands of Hunga-Tonga and Hunga-Ha'apai, creating a massive landbridge as well as a fair amount of interest in what the volcano would do next.


Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shared in a statement,   


"This is a preliminary estimate, but we think the amount of energy released by the eruption was equivalent to somewhere between 4 to 18 megatons of TNT," 


TNT is an explosive. 


Reading from an article on, “The atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in July 1945 released the energy of roughly 15 kilotons of TNT. There are 1,000 kilotons in a megaton, so the high end of the Tonga volcano estimate is equivalent to about 1,200 Hiroshima bombs.”


The Tonga volcano is not the first in our planet’s history to display such a powerful eruption. Not by a long shot. 


In 1980, the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington in the United States released about 24 megatons of TNT equivalent. 


The explosion of Krakatau in Indonesia in 1883  was estimated to have unleashed 200 megatons. And the Tonga volcano occurred underwater.


But it’s explosion was also felt in places as far away as Antartica. 

To watch satellite videos of the explosion is truly awesome. Nature is as incredible as it is mysterious and unpredictable.


The explosion sent a 50-foot high tsunami into the shores of the surrounding islands. Imagine a wave taller than your house or your school.


The blast also severed the nation’s internet cable, cutting off communication for several days.


And while we can wonder in awe at the massive plume of ash and dust that could be seen from space, that powdery residue of melted rock settled onto the islands of the Kingdom of Tonga and surrounding countries, covering everything with a brownish gray coat of volcanic ash.


Imagine if someone dumped a dustpan of dirt onto your floor. The dust would spread out in a cloud when it hit the floor, but eventually it would settle until being kicked up again when you attempt to clean it. It might take several attempts to clean up all of the dirt. 


Now imagine if that dirt and dust covered your entire floor. Imagine if it was over an inch thick. Thicker than your thumb.  


More than 17 million cubic feet of ash settled on Tonga’s largest island. This not only threatens the water supply on the island, but it also affects the agriculture and animals. All of those things that grow as well as all of the things, humans included, that eat the things that grow. It’s also dangerous for people to breathe in the ash, even as they’re working to clean it up.


It’s a lot. And the long term effects it will have on the 100,000 Tongan people are yet to be seen.


But work is being done. And aid is arriving from around the world. And the people of the Kingdom of Tonga are rebuilding and restoring. But the work is hard. And the tools and resources needed to clean up are limited. 

Most of you, if not all of you, are listening to this episode outside of the Kingdom of Tonga. 


Did you hear about this immense volcanic explosion? Have you seen pictures or videos? Have you asked about the people who live there?  


Even though Tonga is halfway around the world for many of us, and even if this is the first time you are hearing this country’s name, there are things we can do to bring this news close to us. 


Look up Tonga on a map, online, or in a book. View pictures of the islands and read their names. Learn about their government and what education is like for Togan kids.


And then, your homework. As you think about kids in Tonga or, really, anywhere, think of what it might be like to live somewhere different. Consider how your life might be different and how it might be the same. 





Then think about how you would want someone to respond if they found out you’d been affected by a similar natural disaster or something otherwise life-threatening or life-compromising. What would best help you and those around you to receive from others? 


Would it be resources, like food and clean water and clothing and tools? 


Would it be messages of support, like emails and letters and pictures and videos?


Would it be something to distract you or entertain you or comfort you?


You don’t need to make or buy or mail anything, though you’re certainly welcome to do so. But I want you to be aware that people are affected by disasters and conflict and change almost constantly. And one of the best things we can do for others is to see them and to acknowledge what they’re going through and to ask, “What do you need? How can I help?”


Keep that wonder for all that our planet surprises us. But also keep an eye out for how you can lend a helping hand when needed.


I’m Matthew. And this is Worth Noting.