In Tonga, a volcano-triggered tsunami underscores islands’ acute climate risk


SINGAPORE (Reuters) – For the South Pacific island nation of Tonga, the tsunami unleashed by Saturday’s volcanic eruption laid naked among the ways in which climate change is threatening the islands’ very existence.

By rising temperatures and driving up sea ranges, climate change will possible worsen disasters wrought by tsunamis, storm surges, and warmth waves, consultants say.

Acutely conscious of this risk, Tonga has been a key voice representing climate-vulnerable nations, saying on the U.N. climate talks in November that world warming “past the 1.5 C threshold would spell absolute disaster for Tonga” and different Pacific Islands as they’re subsumed by the ocean.

Their plea for world climate motion is very determined, provided that Pacific island nations account for under 0.03% of worldwide carbon emissions, based on the World Bank.

“While we’re resilient and attempting to adapt, it solely takes a few further meters of water to cowl a home, to kill a baby or household,” stated Shairana Ali, CEO of the worldwide charity Save the Children, in neighbouring Fiji.


Tonga reported that waves of as much as 15 meters crashed ashore on its outer islands after Saturday’s volcanic eruption, flattening properties and killing not less than three individuals. The eruption triggered tsunami warnings throughout the Pacific.

As sea ranges proceed to rise in coming a long time, tsunamis and storm surges will possible be reaching additional inland with much more risk of harm.

“Tsunami surge and storm surge sit on high of sea stage,” stated Benjamin Horton, who has studied world sea-level rise and is chief of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. So with increased seas, “you will not want such massive pure disasters to trigger widespread devastation.”

Sea ranges across the archipelagic nation of 105,000 persons are rising by about 6 mm per 12 months, almost twice the typical world charge, based on the U.N.’s Global Sea Level Observing System. This is as a result of the islands sit in hotter waters close to the equator, the place sea stage rise is extra pronounced than on the poles.

The injury from tsunamis and storm surges would not cease at wave destruction. Sea water that washes ashore can taint agricultural soil and go away it ineffective for years. Tsunami waves additionally exacerbate coastal erosion and destroy pure buffers towards rising seas, resembling coral reefs and mangroves.

With climate change warming the ocean’s floor, such storm surges are extra possible as the nice and cozy water fuels more and more highly effective cyclones. Tonga and neighboring international locations had been battered by two class 5 cyclones within the final 4 years, leading to a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in injury.


Tongan temperatures are already rising, with the typical every day temperature now 0.6°C increased than it was in 1979. The frequency of scorching days and scorching nights has gone up throughout the Pacific.

That continued warming is prone to make the soil drier as excessive temperatures trigger extra evaporation and have an effect on regional rainfall patterns, based on the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The nation will possible expertise extra warmth waves within the subsequent few a long time, with temperatures steadily breaching 35°C, the report discovered. That excessive warmth will be particularly harmful when mixed with tropical humidity.

Sea waters are heating up too, at thrice the speed of the worldwide common, World Meteorological Organization information reveals. And marine heatwaves – which may kill fish and corals – have gotten extra frequent, extra intense, and lasting longer in a lot of the Pacific Ocean.

Tonga itself noticed a massive blob of ocean warmth type southeast of its islands in January 2020, with floor water temperatures registering 6 levels Celsius above common for that month.


Pacific Islanders are anticipated to be among the many first teams of worldwide climate refugees, as the results of climate change push them out of their homelands.

“Maybe it can ultimately come to that. But I hope not,” stated Josephine Latu-Sanft, a Tongan who now lives in London and works as a climate communicator. “People do not wish to transfer.”

Tongans have already rebuilt their communities twice in recent times – following Cyclone Gita in 2018, and once more after Cyclone Harold in 2020.

“Tongans are very resilient,” and are reluctant to depart the islands regardless of the dangers, Latu-Sanft stated. “We’ve lived there for hundreds of years. Our roots and id are within the land and within the sea.”

(Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Singapore and Gloria Dickie in London; Editing by Katy Daigle and Richard Pullin)

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