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Is Tonga Calamity A Climate Change Warning?

Publication: Times of India

Date: 28/01/2022

The archipelago of the Kingdom of Tonga comprising 169 islands went silent when a volcanic eruption hit the island country on 14th January 2022. An irony since Tonga was one of the first countries in the world to welcome the new year with great excitement just days before. The explosion was so humongous that the sound could be heard 9700 km away in Alaska, United States of America. An undersea volcanic eruption had rocked Tonga in 2009 with a far lesser impact. A tsunami warning was issued by the local administration even as the ash cloud exploded 20 kilometers into the atmosphere. The entire Californian coast was alerted of possible tsunami waves to mitigate any possible damage to life and property. Experts are yet to access the complete damage of this natural disaster and its possible ramifications to the health of the planet. Though the tsunami warning was lifted, the fear of acid rain resultant of the sulphur dioxide in the air kept people indoors in the islands. Despite the Tonga Climate Change Trust Fund instituted to fight the impact of climate change, the country faces severe risks to its existence.

Any natural disaster such as earthquakes, floods, forest fires, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions hints towards possible damage to the ecosystem of the world in more ways than anticipated. The cause of these natural disasters is often associated with climate change and their occurrence sets more precedent to the damage by rising temperatures through global emissions. Multiple global summits and pledges held across the world invest billions of dollars to mitigate the horrid impact of climate change but the intervention is already too little too late.

Climate change experts have predicted the doom in-store due to rising sea levels to the islands, island countries, and cities located by the oceans and water bodies in less than a 50-year time period. Several islands of Tonga have likely vanished in the natural disaster due to volcanic eruptions and tidal waves. Ariel surveys by aid aircraft have shown the extensive damage incurred by the islands after the 14th January calamity. The high tsunami waves have impacted the fishing communities in Japan, Peru, and the United States. The effect on the marine population due to ariel sulphur dioxide (the chemical is known for cooling down the atmosphere temporarily if injected in large amounts) and volcanic ash is yet to be understood.

 

Access to clean drinking water affected due to ash and larger health ramifications will have to be studied and rectified in the time ahead. The International Red Cross says there is an increased risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea with a possible impact on the eyes, skin, and lungs in the aftermath of the disaster.

As the horrid picture from the disaster emerges, countries are scrambling to provide aid and support to the Tongan government.

 

Volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are not uncommon but they are becoming an order of the day. Before the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the word tsunami was seldom used and spoken. Since 2004, over 24 tsunamis have been recorded and their impact documented (19 tsunamis were recorded from the years 1950-2000). Over 16 deadliest earthquakes and 39 volcanic eruptions have ravaged the world since the start of the millennium in the 21st century.

Tonga’s natural disaster cannot be brushed aside as a rare occurrence. It is likely that more such natural calamities may impact the planet due to the damage inflicted on it by polluting industries, global emissions, irresponsible use of plastic, and usage of depleting fossil fuels. In view of the Tonga calamity, Australia had pledged to spend $500 million over five years (2020-2025) to strengthen climate change and disaster resilience in the Pacific with a special focus on the Tongan islands.

The jury is out on the cause of the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami of the Tonga islands while the fate of the archipelago hangs in the balance of climate change, rising temperatures, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis.

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