• KYODO, AFP-Jiji, Jiji, REUTERS, staff report

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Japan’s Pacific coast was hit early Sunday by meter-high waves following a massive underwater volcanic eruption in the South Pacific the previous day.

Nearly 230,000 residents in Japan were urged to move to high ground due to the threat of tsunami.

The Meteorological Agency at one point early Sunday issued tsunami warnings for the northeastern prefecture of Iwate and the southwestern islands of Amami and Tokara in Kagoshima Prefecture, predicting waves as high as 3 meters, but later downgraded the warnings to advisories. All the advisories were lifted by 2 p.m. Sunday.

The tidal surge caused by the eruption, which occurred around 1:10 p.m. Saturday Japan time, reached many parts of Japan, mainly areas along the Pacific coast.

The agency said that the surge is different from a typical tsunami caused by an earthquake, noting that it may have been caused by a sudden change in atmospheric pressure due to the eruption.

In the Kominato district on the Kagoshima island of Amami Oshima, the tide level had risen 1.2 meters as of 11:55 p.m. Saturday.

A 1.1-meter rise was observed at a port in Kuji, Iwate, at 2:26 a.m. Sunday.

There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said as of 7:30 a.m. Sunday, evacuation orders were in place for 229,200 people living in 108,700 households in eight prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Chiba, Tokushima, Kochi, Miyazaki and Kagoshima. The alert included some areas hit by the deadly March 2011 tsunami.

Footage by Japan's Himawari-8 satellite shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga. | NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS (JAPAN) / VIA AFP-JIJI
Footage by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga. | NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS (JAPAN) / VIA AFP-JIJI

Twenty-two boats either capsized, sank or floated away in Kochi Prefecture, while five capsized in Tokushima Prefecture and one in Mie Prefecture. Japan Airlines also canceled 27 flights at airports across the country.

Due to the tsunami warnings and advisories, the second day of the two-day unified university entrance exams was canceled at a venue in the city of Miyako in Iwate, and the starting time was delayed by more than an hour at a venue in Sendai and one in Togane, Chiba Prefecture.

In Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, which was severely damaged by the 2011 tsunami, people evacuated to a temple that sits on high ground following a warning at around 3 a.m. Sunday.

Tadateru Sugawara, 17, and his friend Ryosuke Nishino, 17, said they evacuated even before then, doing so immediately after hearing a tsunami advisory siren. They said they always had in their mind where to evacuate in case of emergency.

Eno Shibasaki, a 65-year-old priest at the temple, who witnessed the carnage wrought by the 2011 tsunami, said he was happy to see young people move quickly in response to the tsunami threat.

“I don’t want anyone else to lose their lives,” he said. “It’s a very good thing that young people were some of the first to evacuate.”

The government was also rushing to confirm the safety of Japanese nationals in Tonga, where the volcanic eruption took place. The Foreign Ministry has been in contact with the Japanese Embassy in the Pacific Island nation, but power outages and other factors were impeding local communications.

According to the Foreign Ministry website, there were 35 Japanese residents of Tonga as of April 2020.

People evacuate in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, early Sunday morning after a tsunami warning was issued. | KYODO
People evacuate in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, early Sunday morning after a tsunami warning was issued. | KYODO

Following the tsunami warning and advisories by the agency, the government set up a liaison section at the Prime Minister’s Office to gather information.

The weather agency on Saturday evening had said there was a chance of minor sea level changes in Japan but had ruled out a damaging tsunami and did not initially issue a warning or advisory. The agency then shifted gears shortly after 12 a.m. Sunday when the warning was issued, though waves had apparently already arrived in some areas.

A tsunami warning was last issued in the country in November 2016, after a magnitude 7.4 quake rattled northeastern Japan.

The massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga was so powerful that it was recorded around the world, scientists said Sunday.

A person watches for tsunami waves in the Hiyoriyama area of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sunday morning. | KYODO
A person watches for tsunami waves in the Hiyoriyama area of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sunday morning. | KYODO

Dramatic satellite images showed the long, rumbling eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano spew smoke and ash in the air, with a thunderous roar heard 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) away in Alaska.

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded Saturday’s eruption as being equivalent to a 5.8 magnitude earthquake at zero depth.

Pacific nations and humanitarian groups struggled to establish communications with Tonga on Sunday after the volcanic eruption triggered-tsunami cut telephone and internet connections, raising concerns for the tiny island nation.

Internet and phone lines went down at about 6:40 p.m. local time on Saturday, leaving the 105,000 residents on the islands virtually unreachable.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sunday that the tsunami had caused “significant damage” to the island nation’s capital of Nuku’alofa and smothered it in dust. The capital suffered “significant” damage, Ardern said, adding there had been no reports of injury or death but a full assessment was not yet possible with communication lines down.

“The tsunami has had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku’alofa with boats and large boulders washed ashore,” Ardern said after making contact with the New Zealand Embassy in Tonga.

“Nuku’alofa is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable.”

A person waits after train lines were stopped due to a tsunami warning at Ishinomaki Station in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sunday morning. | KYODO
A person waits after train lines were stopped due to a tsunami warning at Ishinomaki Station in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sunday morning. | KYODO

However, there has been no word on damage in the outer islands and New Zealand will send an air force reconnaissance aircraft “as soon as atmospheric conditions allow,” the New Zealand Defence Force tweeted.

“We’re working hard to see how we can assist our Pacific neighbors after the volcanic eruption near Tonga.”

The United States was “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, pledging support for the island nation.

A 1.2-meter wave swept ashore in the Tongan capital, with locals reporting they had fled to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses, some with structural damage, and with small stones and ash falling from the sky.

“It was massive, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves. My younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby,” resident Mere Taufa told the New Zealand news website Stuff on Saturday.

She said water filled their home minutes later and she saw the wall of a neighboring house collapse.

“We just knew straight away it was a tsunami. Just water gushing into our home.

“You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground.”

Tonga’s King Tupou VI was reported to have been evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa and taken by a police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline.

A Meteorological Agency official speaks during a news conference early Sunday morning. | KYODO
A Meteorological Agency official speaks during a news conference early Sunday morning. | KYODO

By Sunday afternoon, however, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said the threat from the eruption had passed.

The volcano’s eruption lasted at least eight minutes and sent plumes of gas, ash and smoke several kilometers into the air.

New Zealand scientist Marco Brenna, a senior lecturer at Otago University’s School of Geology, described the impact of the eruption as “relatively mild” but said another eruption with a much bigger impact could not be ruled out.

The eruption was so powerful it was even heard in Alaska, the UAF Geophysical Institute tweeted.

“A part of the pressure signal in Alaska was in the audible range. The very large signal is not that surprising considering the scale of the eruption, but the audible aspect is fairly unique,” it said, citing Alaska Volcano Observatory scientist David Fee.

“He recalls only a couple other volcanic eruptions doing something like this: Krakatau and Novarupta,” the institute tweeted, referring to the 19th century eruptions of Indonesia’s Krakatau and Alaska’s Novarupta, the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

The Fife weather station in Scotland tweeted it was “just incredible to think of the power that can send a shockwave around the world” after the eruptions produced a jump in its air pressure graph.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, which lies about 65 km north of Nuku’alofa, has a history of volatility.

In recent years, it breached sea level during a 2009 eruption, while in 2015 it spewed so many large rocks and ash into the air that when they settled a new island had formed 2 kilometers long by 1 kilometer wide and 100 meters high.

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