Tongan Volcanic Disaster Highlights Looming Threats of Climate Change for Countries at the Frontline

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano on January 15 sent tsunami waves pummeling toward the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga and across the world. The explosion and ensuing destruction left the country without communication to the outside world, while entire villages were destroyed and covered in a thick layer of ash.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption provides an important warning about the consequences of climate change and climate-related displacement. Whether destruction is caused by intensified tsunami waves due to rising sea levels, the ramifications of volcanic materials interacting with increased levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere altering atmospheric cooling mechanisms, or the potential effects melting ice will have on geologic events—island nations such as Tonga are at especially high risk. The United States and others must heed this warning and take steps to address it.

What Happened?

Scale of Damage

On January 15, 40 miles from the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, north of New Zealand and close to Fiji, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano erupted, expelling volcanic materials with energy “hundreds of times the equivalent” of the Hiroshima bombs. The largest volcanic eruption on earth in 30 years sent tsunamis rippling from its epicenter, with waves that were felt around the world. In Tonga, waves reached up to 50 feet high, destroying entire villages and leaving at least four people dead. A thick layer of ash covered the archipelago, a concern that health officials say poses risks for drinking water, air quality, and agriculture. The eruption also severed an undersea communications cable to the island, cutting off Tonga’s phone and internet connection. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the population has been affected by the disaster, with significant damage to vital agricultural sectors, including crops, livestock, and fisheries. The aftermath of the eruption was even felt across the Pacific, causing an oil spill off the coast of Peru.

Humanitarian Response

Emergency relief to Tonga is ramping up, with international aid mediums such as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and donor countries increasing financial support. Officials have reported a successful local response from Tongan aid partners as the country has opted for contactless aid from foreign actors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to comply with Tonga’s public health protocols. Local partners will continue to assess emerging needs for the international community to support from afar. With a population of just over 100,000,  situation updates by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) show Tongan humanitarian assistance is well underway, but there is still a ways to go to reach the 84,000 people affected by the disaster. At least 337 households have received shelter, more than 30,000 people have been reached with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) assistance, 15,000 people have accessed health assistance, and some 10,000 people have received nutrition assistance.

The success of the localized response is especially optimistic in the context of a global pandemic. Tonga has mostly avoided COVID-19 due to its strict lockdowns and border closures. But now, it’s experiencing its first Coronavirus outbreak, sending the country into lockdown. Over 9,300 vaccine doses and 15,000 rapid tests have been delivered to the Kingdom to boost laboratory capacity, with about 70 percent of the total population fully vaccinated as of February 23, 2022.

What’s at Stake?

Island nations like Tonga are at high risk of rising global temperatures. As sea levels rise, floods and tsunamis will grow stronger and more destructive. Not only will warming temperatures and rising sea levels compound short-term climate events, but rising sea temperatures will negatively affect soil cultivation and rain patterns. Warming ocean temperatures also threaten subsistence fishing and the health of the surrounding ocean ecosystem—all devastating for Tongan livelihoods. There’s now even burgeoning research exploring how climate change will affect volcanic eruptions and their aftermath. For example, there is the potential for volcanic eruptions to increase as temperatures increase and ice melts. Scientists are hypothesizing that geologic stressors, such as the weight of ice being lifted from underneath the crust as ice melts, could cause increased volcanic activity.

Tonga is ranked one of the most at-risk countries in the world for the effects of climate change. In the wake of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption, more than 2,000 Tongans remain displaced. As the consequences of warming temperatures become stronger and more frequent, island nations like Tonga will face increased climate-change induced displacement. In the wake of the recent disaster, Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni commented he’s unsure if those evacuated from the hardest-hit islands will return home, and that rebuilding the mental health of Tongans in the wake of the disaster will take time.

What Must be Done?

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption is just one example of how countries least responsible for the effects of climate change may be underprepared to face them. While sobering, high-income countries must step up, given their disproportionate amount of carbon emissions, to support nations like Tonga.

In general, high-income countries must prioritize strengthening monetary commitments for adaptation efforts in line with developed countries’ pledges  of $100 billion per year for mitigation and adaptation financing to developing countries. They should also urgently provide vulnerable countries with the tools and financing to support countries to adapt and to address loss and damage, a mechanism that would compensate countries for permanent damage or irreparable loss as a result of climate disasters. Pacific island nations have been advocating for years for remuneration to address loss and damage in their countries, including planned relocation, with little commitments from “global north” countries—as seen this year at the international climate conference, or COP26. Island states are facing the consequences of climate change now, and the damage done is costly. Therefore, industrialized countries can and should increase their support for small island nations with existing adaptation and planned relocation plans, like Fiji and Vanuatu’s, while contributing to relocation funds.

In the United States, the Biden administration should work to humanely address issues stemming from the current climate crisis at home and abroad. As one of the top greenhouse gas emitters in the world, with powerful political and economic standing, the United States is uniquely positioned to increase support to the most vulnerable countries, like Tonga, in adaptation efforts and when it comes to migration and human mobility. The administration has shown a willingness to grapple with climate change and migration issues, releasing a “Report on the Impact of Climate Change and Migration” in October 2021. However, actionable policies that support countries at the frontline of climate change, like Tonga, remain to be seen.