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Violent Volcanic Eruption Triggers Global Shockwaves

What happened?

An underwater volcano, Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, erupted about 40 miles from Tonga’s capital earlier this week. According to ABC News, the volcanic eruption caused a sonic boom that could be heard and felt in Alaska and initiated tsunami warnings for other Pacific Ocean nations.

The massive eruption is likely the largest volcanic event since 1991. The eruption caused 15-meter tsunami waves and blanketed Tonga’s islands in a thick layer of ash.

New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry warned of ongoing eruptions in the following weeks, posing further tsunami risks to Tonga and New Zealand. Initial reports of damage came out on Tuesday thanks to reconnaissance flights made from Australia and New Zealand.

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What’s the impact?

The eruption caused three deaths and extensive damage to infrastructure on the country’s islands, of which 36 are inhabited by Tonga’s population of 100,000. Volcanic ash is polluting critical drinking water sources and interrupting relief plane landings on the islands.

There are also COVID-19 outbreak concerns as aid arrives from other countries impacted by the Omicron variant. The country has only had one confirmed case of COVID-19 since January 2020 and no deaths.

The eruption also damaged an undersea fiber-optic cable, which has halted communication systems and cut off Tonga from the rest of the world. Sources say it could take weeks to repair the cable and restore full connectivity.

Waves from the blast hit Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and North and South America’s Pacific coasts. Waves have also reportedly caused an oil spill off Peru’s coast about 6,600 miles away from the blast. 

How can OSINT help?

Because Tonga’s communication channels were cut off during the explosion, foreign nations had little access to information about the scale of on-the-ground destruction until reconnaissance planes were deployed from Australia and New Zealand.

When communication is disrupted during natural disasters, social media is a valuable source of information as connectivity is restored. It’s also useful for detecting natural disasters from surrounding areas that are affected but still have communication systems intact.

For example, this social media post was detected online shortly after the blast at 17:42 local time on January 15th in Tonga:

Other social media content surfaced as neighboring countries heard sonic booms following the eruption:

Social media content like this can help generate open-source intelligence (OSINT) for governments, providing insights like:

  • When and where a natural disaster has occurred, providing early warning signals and real-time updates from the ground
  • The extent of damage, which resources are needed, and where disaster aid can be safely deployed
  • Ripple effects of the disaster in other regions, including indirect impacts like supply chain disruptions

Specialized OSINT tools are required to efficiently access relevant open information sources during critical disasters—including social networks and news aggregators in affected regions.

Book some time with our team to learn more about relevant OSINT data sources for your national security intelligence efforts.