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Tsunami advisory ends for B.C. coast after undersea volcano erupts near Tonga

Some areas of B.C. coast experienced higher waves and stronger currents.
In this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. An undersea volcano erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending large waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground. (Japan Meteorology Agency via AP)

Tsunami advisories were issued early Saturday for the west coast of Vancouver Island and Juan de Fuca Strait, including Greater Victoria, following an undersea volcano eruption near Tonga. The advisories were cancelled about 3 p.m. While the advisories were in effect, there were reports of stronger currents and higher waves.

Advisories had also been issued for other areas of the B.C. coast, including Haida Gwaii, the north and central coasts, and northeast Vancouver Island. Those advisories were cancelled about 12:30 p.m.

Emergency Management B.C. issued this statement at 12:35 p.m.: "A volcanic eruption has occurred near the Tonga Islands resulting in a Tsunami Advisory. Advisory level waves are being observed along the Pacific coast and some maximum wave amplitudes continue to increase."

Environment Canada said there could be strong currents. Significant inundation is not expected, but there could be danger in low lying coastal areas. People in coastal areas were advised to stay away from the shoreline.

The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center, which issues tsunami information for the continental U.S. and Canada, recorded a 10 centimetre increase in water levels in Tofino and 26 cm at Winter Harbour, northwest Vancouver Island.

Tsunamis arrive as a series of waves and the first may not be the biggest.

The province's tsunami advisory initially included B.C.’s north coast, Haida Gwaii, the central coast, and Vancouver Island. Wave activity was forecast for Langara about 8:30 a.m. and Tofino about 8:50 a.m.

Emergency Management B.C. advised people to not go to the shore to watch and to stay out of the water. For boat operators, if practical, move out to sea to a depth of at least 180 feet; if already at sea, avoid entering shallow water, harbours and inlets.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the risk was limited to increased tidal currents and residents should stay away from beaches, shorelines and marinas and follow local government guidance until the advisory is lifted.

"To be clear, this is an advisory only, and not tsunami warning," he said.

Several communities along the coast activated their emergency plans overnight, Farnworth said.

"Emergency Management B.C. immediately activated the Provincial Emergency Co-ordination Centre, and all provincial regional operations centres on the coast," he said in a statement. "The agency has also been supporting local governments and First Nations with updates and a series of co-ordination calls."

Victoria’s waterfront was quiet on Saturday morning shortly before 9 a.m. A Victoria police SUV visited Clover Point for a short time, joggers and dog walkers were out on paths and the seas were calm.

In Tofino, public beaches were closed and people were advised to stay away from all beaches and waterways. An evacuation was not ordered. Live-stream video from the Pacific Sands Beach Resort showed people at the beach Saturday morning.

Residents of Port Alberni were also advised to avoid beaches, harbours, marinas and shorelines. The municipality said there was no need to evacuate.

Tsunami alerts were issued for Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast came after an undersea volcano erupted Saturday near the Pacific nation of Tonga, sending large tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage as communications with the small island nation remained cut off hours after the eruption.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves slamming ashore from half a metre in Nawiliwili, Kauai, to 80 centimetres in Hanalei. “We are relieved that there is no reported damage and only minor flooding throughout the islands,” the center said, describing the situation in Hawaii.

The volcanic eruption near Tonga was initially reported at 8:27 p.m. Pacific time on Friday. 

On Tonga, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.

New Zealand's military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to assist if asked.

Satellite images showed a huge eruption, a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters.

The Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami warning was declared for all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific tsunami centre showed waves of 80 centimetres had been detected.

In Hawaii, Alaska and along the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast, residents were asked to move away from the coastline to higher ground and pay attention to specific instructions from their local emergency management officials, said Dave Snider, tsunami warning co-ordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska.

“We don’t issue an advisory for this length of coastline as we’ve done — I’m not sure when the last time was — but it really isn’t an everyday experience,” he said. “I hope that elevates the importance and severity for our citizens.”

He said the waves already slamming ashore in Hawaii were just under the criteria for a more serious tsunami warning, with measurements at 80 centimetres in Hanalei and Maui. Waves of about 91 centimetres or above would trigger a warning. Snider said they’re currently expecting waves of 30 to 61 centimetres along the Pacific coast.

Snider said residents in these areas should expect waves and strong and unusual currents for many hours and there could be some low areas that are inundated, such as marinas and harbours.

“The important thing here is the first wave may not be the largest. We could see this play out for several hours,” he added. “It looks like everything will stay below the warning level but it’s difficult to predict because this is a volcanic eruption and we’re set up to measure earthquake or seismic-driven sea waves.”

Residents of American Samoa were alerted of the tsunami warning by local broadcasters as well as church bells that rang territory-wide. An outdoor siren warning system was out of service. Those living along the shoreline quickly moved to higher ground.

As night fell, there were no reports of any damage and the Hawaii-based tsunami centre cancelled the alert.

Authorities in the nearby island nations of Fiji and Samoa also issued warnings, telling people to avoid the shoreline due to strong currents and dangerous waves. The Japan Meteorological Agency said there may be a slight swelling of the water along the Japanese coasts, but it was not expected to cause any damage.

The Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated Tonga's King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore. He was among the many residents who headed for higher ground.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the latest in a series of spectacular eruptions.

A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.

“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”

Earlier, the Matangi Tonga news site reported that scientists observed massive explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it started erupting early Friday. Satellite images showed a 5-kilometre-wide plume rising into the air to about 20 kilometres. 

More than 2,300 kilometres away in New Zealand, officials were warning of storm surges from the eruption.

The National Emergency Management Agency said some parts of New Zealand could expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore following a large volcanic eruption.”

The volcano is located about 64 kilometres north of the capital, Nuku’alofa. Back in late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Tonga is home to about 105,000 people.

— Associated Press writers Nick Perry, Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, American Samoa, contributed to this report.

— With files from The Canadian Press