Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai

Coordinates: 20°32′42″S 175°23′33″W / 20.54500°S 175.39250°W / -20.54500; -175.39250
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Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai
The islands of Hunga Tonga (right side) and Hunga Haʻapai (left side), in February 2022.
Highest point
Elevation114 m (374 ft)[1]
ListingList of volcanoes in Tonga
Coordinates20°32′42″S 175°23′33″W / 20.54500°S 175.39250°W / -20.54500; -175.39250
LocationTonga Islands
Mountain typeSubmarine volcano
Last eruption20 December 2021 – 15 January 2022[2]
An interactive map of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai

Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai (listen) is a submarine volcano in the South Pacific located about 30 km (19 mi) south of the submarine volcano of Fonuafoʻou and 65 km (40 mi) north of Tongatapu, Tonga's main island.[3] It is part of the highly active Kermadec-Tonga subduction zone and its associated volcanic arc, which extends from New Zealand north-northeast to Fiji, and is formed by the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Indo-Australian Plate.[4][5] It lies about 100 km (62 mi) above a very active seismic zone.[5][6]

The volcano rises around 2,000 m from the seafloor and has a caldera which – on the eve of the 2022 eruption – was roughly 150 m below sea level and 4 km at its widest extent.[7] The only major above-water part of the volcano are the twin uninhabited islands[8] of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai, which are respectively part of the northern and western rim of the caldera.[3][7] As a result of the volcano's eruptive history, the islands existed as a single landmass from 2015 to 2022: they were merged by a volcanic cone in a VEI 2 volcanic eruption in 2014–2015,[3][7] and were separated again by a more explosive eruption in 2022, which also reduced the islands in size.[2][9]

Its most recent eruption in January 2022 generated a tsunami that reached as far as the coasts of Japan and of the Americas and a volcanic plume that reached 58 km (36 mi), into the mesosphere. As of February 2024 the eruption is the largest volcanic eruption in the 21st century. Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai likely had a previous major explosive eruption in the late 11th or early 12th century (possibly in 1108). Several known historical eruptions occurred in 1912, 1937, 1988, 2009, 2014–15 and 2021–22.

Volcano and caldera[edit]

Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai in 1978

Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai is a submarine volcano in the Kermadec-Tonga Ridge in South Pacific, a ridge formed by the convergent boundary where the Pacific Plate is subducted by the Indo-Australian Plate, forming a long volcanic and island chain. Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano lies almost completely underwater, with the exception of two small volcanic islands, Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai. They are, respectively, the remnants of the northern and western rim of the volcano's caldera.[3][10] The volcano's base at the seafloor is approximately 20 km in diameter,[11] rising roughly 2,000 m towards the sea surface. Before the 2022 eruption, the volcano's caldera was roughly 150 m below sea-level, and had a size of 4 × 2 km.[7] Its northern and southern portions were filled by volcanic deposits from previous eruptions.[7] Before the 2015 eruption, the two subaerial islands were about 1.6 km (0.99 mi) apart,[12] and were each about 2 km (1.2 mi) long. They are both composed largely of andesite and layered tephra deposits,[5][6] with steep rocky cliffs.[13] This andesite tends to be of the basaltic type.[14]

Samples from the islands suggest a long eruptive history.[7] One pyroclastic flow was dated to 1040–1180 CE, correlating to ash deposits found on Tongatapu, and to an unknown tropical eruption in 1108 CE that had produced 1 °C of global cooling.[7] The caldera is believed to have been formed by this eruption.[7] Submarine eruptions at a rocky shoal – about 3.2 km (2.0 mi) southeast of Hunga Haʻapai and 3 km (1.9 mi) south of Hunga Tonga – were reported in 1912 and 1937; both eruptions had a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 2.[3] Another eruption in Hunga occurred from a fissure 1 km (0.62 mi) south-southeast of Hunga Haʻapai island in 1988; this eruption had a VEI of 0.[3] The 2009 eruption[3] arose from two vents located to the south and northwest of Hunga Haʻapai. The tephra deposited around each vent became connected to the island and nearly tripled its size, but such deposits disappeared with erosion in the following months.[13]


Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai on 20 December 2021 (the only major subaerial part of the volcano) formed a single island from 2015 to 2022
Radar image of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai on October 7, 2019


Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai are the only subaerial parts of the volcano. Hunga Tonga is the eastern island, while Hunga Haʻapai is the western one. They are part of Tonga's Haʻapai group of islands,[15] an island arc formed at the convergent boundary where the Pacific Plate subducts under the Indo-Australian Plate.[6][16][17]

Before the 2014–15 eruption, which connected them into a single island, the islands were separated by about 1.6 km (0.99 mi) of ocean water.[12] Before the 2022 eruption, the highest point in the former Hunga Tonga reached an elevation of 149 m (489 ft), while Hunga Haʻapai was only 128 m (420 ft) above sea level.[3] Neither island was large: before they were connected in 2015, each island was about 2 km (1.2 mi) long, with Hunga Tonga being roughly 390,000 m2 (0.15 sq mi) and Hunga Haʻapai 650,000 m2 (0.25 sq mi) in size.[18] They are much smaller after the 2022 eruption. Neither island was developed due to a lack of an acceptable anchorage, although there were large guano deposits on each island.[15][19]

After the 2015 eruption, the smaller Hunga Tonga island, approximately 1.5 km (0.93 mi) to the northeast of Hunga Haʻapai, became attached to the crater via a 380 m (1,250 ft)-wide tombolo, and further sandy deposits had built up at the southern end of the crater's connection with Hunga Haʻapai. The caldera itself has eroded rapidly in the southeast, originally allowing an opening that flooded the crater with seawater to form a bay. This bay has later become separated from the open ocean by a shallow sandbar, forming a lagoon. Initially it was believed that the entire island would be eroded rapidly, but by 2017, scientists believed that the process could take decades.[20]

The islands figure in Tongan mythology as one of the few islands which were not overfished, and hence thrown down from heaven to land on earth.[21][22] Tongans called them the islands which "jump back and forth" (i.e. suffer earthquakes).[21] The first Europeans to see the islands were those with the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire in 1616. The British explorer Captain James Cook visited them several times in 1777 and learned their Tongan names.[23][24][25]


2009 eruption[edit]

False-color satellite image taken 25 March 2009, showing new land south of Hunga Haʻapai. Clouds cover the space between the new land and Hunga Haʻapai. The vent is the nearly perfect circular hole near the southern edge of the new land. The ocean around the erupting volcano is bright blue, indicating ash, rock, and other volcanic debris. Plant-covered land is red. Note that Hunga Haʻapai is now colored black, indicating that plants on the island are now buried in ash or dead.

On 16 March 2009, a submarine eruption near Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai began spewing steam, smoke, pumice, and ash thousands of feet into the sky.[26][a] By 21 March, Tonga's chief geologist, Kelepi Mafi, reported lava and ash issuing from two vents – one on the uninhabited island Hunga Haʻapai and another about 100 m (330 ft) offshore. The eruption had filled the gap between the two vents, creating new land surface that measured hundreds of square metres.[30][31] The eruption devastated Hunga Haʻapai, covering it in black ash and stripping it of vegetation and fauna.[31]

The volcanic eruption drew worldwide attention. The volcano was featured in a segment of the television program Angry Planet in 2009.[32]

2014–2015 eruption[edit]

Satellite image of the 2015 volcanic eruption at Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai

From November to December 2014, volcanic plumes and a series of earthquakes at volcanoes occurred north of Tonga for several weeks, indicating resumed volcanic activity in the area.

A new eruption began at Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai on 19 December 2014. Local fishermen reported a tall white steam plume rising from the ocean over the undersea volcanic mount. Satellite images taken on December 29 showed the eruption continuing, with a smoke and ash plume rising from the site, and discolored seawater (possibly caused by smoke and ash released below the surface, or by disturbance of the seabed).[33] The eruption continued into 2015, with a tall ash cloud rising 3 km (9,800 ft) into the sky on 6 January 2015.[34]

The eruption entered a new stage on 11 January 2015, when the volcano began sending ash plumes as high as 9 km (30,000 ft) into the sky. An Air New Zealand flight on 12 January had to be diverted to Samoa, while a number of other flights between New Zealand and Tonga were cancelled.[35] An ash plume reached 4.5 km (15,000 ft) on January 13. Officials identified two vents, one on Hunga Haʻapai and another about 100 m (330 ft) offshore and underwater.[36] Large rocks and wet, dense ash were being ejected up to 400 m (1,300 ft) into the air.[36][37] By 16 January, a new island had been formed by the explosion.[38] Tongan officials estimated the new island to be 1 km (0.62 mi) wide, 2 km (1.2 mi) long, and 100 m (330 ft) high,[36][37] although geologists said the new island would probably exist only a few months until ocean waves wore it down.[39] Ash and acid rain were falling in an area about 10 km (6.2 mi) from the new island, and Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai had both been denuded of vegetation.[36][37]

Despite the volcano's eruption, which was spewing a steam cloud 1 km (0.62 mi) into the air,[37] international flights to Tonga resumed on 16 January, as volcano and aviation experts deemed the eruption no longer a threat to airliners.[36]

Geologists from Tonga and New Zealand who visited the volcano on January 19 said the eruption had quieted in the last 24 hours. They noted that nearly all the eruption was now coming from the vent on the new island, with steam clouds rising to a height of 7 to 10 km (4.3–6.2 mi), and ash and rock being thrown to a height of about 200 to 300 m (660–980 ft). Emission of ash was limited, with magma rocks hitting the ocean causing some steam explosions. The team found no floating volcanic debris, such as pumice rafts, and the smell of volcanic gases was intermittent. Tongan officials established a zone 20 km (12 mi) in diameter around the island to protect visitors from rock, ash, and acid rain.[40]

Tongan officials declared the eruption at an end on 26 January,[41] after observing no new gas, ash, or rock emerging from the island vent.[42] By this time, the island was 1 to 2 km (0.62 to 1.24 mi) wide, 2 km (1.2 mi) long, and 120 m (390 ft) high.[41][42] The new island had joined with Hunga Haʻapai, and was about 200 m (660 ft) away from joining with Hunga Tonga.[41][42] Locals visiting the island said seabirds were nesting.[43]

In June 2015, entrepreneur Ian Argus Stuart became the first person to overnight on this new island formation. Spending 11 nights on the island, Stuart survived eating nothing but seagull eggs and squid. Stuart went to Hunga Tonga with the help of the Spanish explorer Álvaro Cerezo, who provides castaway experiences to remote desert islands around the planet.[44]

Post–2015 scientific study[edit]

View from the summit of Hunga Tonga – Hunga Haʻapai in June 2017

In June 2017, French explorers Cécile Sabau and Damien Grouille landed the island from their sailing boat COLIBRI. Aside from taking some of the very few pictures of the island before it was decimated by the 2022 eruption, they collected a total of 16 rock samples, documented with GPS plotting and 3D pictures.[45]

This material was studied by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, led by Dr James B. Garvin. They studied Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai, using it as a model for volcanic shapes on Mars. In an article published in late 2017, the scientists concluded that Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai eroded in ways that are remarkably similar to the erosion patterns seen on similar landforms on Mars. The scientists noted that this suggested Mars was once flooded briefly by water, but that the water receded fairly quickly. They said that further study of the similarities between Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai and Martian volcanic landforms was needed.[46]

Another analysis of the samples showed that the volcanic ash that forms much of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai reacted with the warm oceanic water around it. This chemical reaction turned the ash into much harder rock, and volcanologists believed the island would last for several decades rather than be eroded. This made Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai only the third volcanic island in the last 150 years to survive more than a few months.[46]

In October 2018, scientists visited the island and discovered that its surface was covered with gravel, sticky mud, and vegetation. The island was also populated by a variety of bird life. They also found that the island seemed to be eroding more quickly than previously thought, due to rainfall.[47][48] The survey also found that coral reefs around the volcano quickly recovered from the eruption.[49]

December 2021–January 2022 eruption[edit]

Satellite animation of the initial ash plume and shockwave on 15 January

On 20 December 2021 the volcano erupted, causing a large plume that was visible from Nukuʻalofa.[50] The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre Wellington issued an advisory to airlines.[51] Explosions could be heard up to 170 kilometres (110 mi) away.[52] The initial eruption continued until 2 am on 21 December.[50] Activity continued, and on 25 December, satellite imagery showed that the island had increased in size.[53]

As activity on the volcano decreased, it was declared dormant on 11 January[54][55] before restarting on 14 January after the volcano sent an ash cloud 20 km (12 mi).[56] The Tongan government subsequently issued a tsunami warning.[57][58] On the next day, the volcano violently erupted again, about seven times more powerfully than the eruption on 20 December 2021. The initial volcanic plume rose to 58 kilometres (36 miles) into the mesosphere, the greatest height ever reported for a vapor plume.[59] There were numerous reports of loud booms across Tonga and other countries, such as Fiji and as far away as New Zealand and Australia. A boom was heard in Alaska, 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) from the source seven hours after eruption.[60] The Met Office in the UK also detected shockwaves from the eruption.[61] The eruption set off a massive atmospheric shock-wave travelling at about 300 m (980 ft) per second.[62] The energy released by the eruption has been calculated using various methods and thus have led to a range of values. While one study estimated a release equivalent to 61 megatons of TNT,[63] more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated, another study proposed at least five blasts, two of relatively small size around 4:00 UTC (<0.1 Mt) and three increasingly larger ones at 4:06 (0.5 Mt), 4:18 (4 Mt), and 4:56 (15 Mt).[64] Near the eruption, the explosion damaged property, including shattered windows.[65] A tsunami warning was issued just after 5:30 p.m. by the Tonga Meteorological Services and the tsunami flooded coastal areas in Tonga.[66]

Two people were killed in Peru and two fishermen were injured in San Gregorio, California. Four deaths were confirmed in Tonga, including a British woman whose body was found after she went missing when the tsunami struck.[67][68][69][70]

According to a report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, while comparable to other volcanic eruptions on some measures, the 2022 Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai eruption sent unprecedented amounts of water vapor into the stratosphere.[71]

On 15 January a satellite radar survey showed that most of the island had been destroyed, and only small parts remained.[9] These included remnants of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai.[72]

A survey of the caldera by a remote operated vehicle in August 2022 found continuing signs of volcanic activity.[73]

In August 2022, a NASA report on the January 2022 eruption of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai stated, "The huge amount of water vapor hurled into the atmosphere, as detected by NASA’s Microwave Limb Sounder, The excess water vapor injected by the Tonga volcano... could remain in the stratosphere for several years... may have a small, temporary warming effect... would not be enough to noticeably exacerbate climate change effects."[74]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The date the eruption began is uncertain. According to the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism program, "Observers flying near the area of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai (about 62 km NNW of Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga) on 16 or 17 March reported seeing an eruption."[27] The report cites Keizo Gates's web log, dated 16 March 2009, which contains photos allegedly taken from civilian aircraft late on the afternoon of March 16.[28] The Smithsonian subsequently confirmed that the eruption began on 16 March.[29]


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