Buoys alerted the National Tsunami Warning Center after volcano erupted

Alaskans with ties to Tonga wait for word from loved ones
Buoys alerted the National Tsunami Warning Center after volcano erupted
Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 6:42 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 18, 2022 at 8:00 PM AKST
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - A tsunami is typically thought of as the effect of a significant seismic event, such as an earthquake, but a massive underwater eruption of a volcano near the island nation of Tonga last Saturday triggered a tsunami advisory for the west coast of the United States, including Alaska.

It was a large eruption, according to Ben Heath, a duty scientist for the National Tsunami Warning Center located in Palmer.

“What was really interesting about this event is we’re geared towards seismic alarms,” he said. “So most of the events that we have are related to earthquakes and we actually didn’t — what we recorded, the way we first learned about this eruption was actually some of our buoys went off.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses what are called “DART buoys”, which stands for Deep-ocean Assessment and Research of Tsunamis, to monitor ocean activity and measures a tsunami as it propagates through the ocean. After the eruption of the underwater volcano occurred, the information transmitted by the buoys alerted the warning center of the tsunami.

“It’s very unique for the types of events that we respond to usually,” said Heath.

The largest wave recorded in Alaska from the tsunami measured 100 centimeters — approximately 3.3 feet — on the coast of King Cove. Heath said the warning center does not anticipate another major eruption from the volcano to trigger more tsunamis, but the center is still monitoring for activity.

The tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii are used to monitor the globe for tsunami-generating earthquakes, and upon detection and evaluation, issue warning guidance to coastal regions of the United States. The Alaska-based location resides in Palmer due to bedrock that sticks out of the ground, allowing for more accurate data from a seismometer.

Meanwhile, those in Alaska with ties to Tonga continue to wait for word from loved ones there.

“Social media got us very connected, you see them going live all the time. And now it’s already going a few days now, nothing,” said Anchorage’s Sela Vakauta-Dettmer. “All we can see waking up and seeing on the news, Googling ‘Tonga news’ to see if there’s any update.”

What Vakauta-Dettmer and the rest of the world do get is a look at the devastation.

“Wow, and to see that explosion, and then to see our little, you know our island, Tonga is still standing,” Vakauta-Dettmer said.

She moved to Hawaii at the age of seven from Tonga with her family. But, her native land never left her.

“On the seal of Tonga it said, ‘God and Tonga are my inheritance.’ And I feel like that’s where we’re all ... that gave us that piece of mind, like to keep praying for Tonga,” said Vakauta-Dettmer.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has mobilized a regional network of partners to send emergency supplies, including drinking water, to Tonga. Meanwhile, the National Tongan American Society has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the survivors of the volcanic eruption.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information and quotes.

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