Hot Topics: All about the Tonga volcano eruption, the oil spill it caused in Peru, and potential effects on climate

  • On January 15, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano near the South Pacific island nation of Tonga erupted, blanketing the kingdom and its people in toxic ash
  • Massive waves from the eruption hit an oil tanker near Peru, causing an oil spill that has threatened animals such as birds, fish and turtles
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Buildings in Tonga have been damaged following a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami. Photo: Malau Media via Reuters

Hot Topics takes an issue that’s being discussed in the news and allows you to compare and analyse different news articles and viewpoints on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth and can be used on your own, or with a friend.

Context: Tonga volcano eruption equivalent to hundreds of Hiroshimas, says Nasa

An underwater volcano near the South Pacific island nation of Tonga erupted on January 15. The eruption unleashed explosive forces that dwarfed the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, Nasa scientists have said.

The Nasa Earth Observatory said earlier that the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano spewed debris as high as 40km into the atmosphere during the eruption that triggered huge tsunami waves.

“We think the amount of energy released by the eruption was equivalent to somewhere between four to 18 megatons of TNT,” Nasa scientist Jim Garvin said in a press release.

Nasa said the eruption was hundreds of times stronger than the US atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945, which was estimated to be about 15 kilotons of TNT.

Credit: Graphic News

The volcanic eruption lasted at least eight minutes and blanketed the island kingdom of about 100,000 in a layer of toxic ash that poisoned drinking water, destroyed crops and wiped out at least two villages.

The agency said the eruption “obliterated” the volcanic island about 65 kilometres north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa. It is believed to be the biggest volcanic eruption in the world in three decades.

It claimed at least three lives in Tonga and resulted in the drowning deaths of two beachgoers in Peru after freak waves hit the South American country. Peruvian authorities declared an environmental disaster after waves hit an oil tanker near Lima, creating a slick along the coast.

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Nuku’alofa-based journalist Mary Lyn Fonua said locals were still coming to terms with the scale of the disaster.

Fonua said the coating of fine grey grime covering everything was proving difficult to live with and raising concerns about long-term health issues.

She told AFP: “It irritates your eyes. You get sores in the corner of your mouth. Everyone has blackened fingernails.”
Agence-France Presse and Reuters

Question prompts:

  • Using details from Context and the graphic above, describe the scale of destruction that the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption caused within Tonga.

  • Using Context, identify THREE forms of aid that the people in Tonga would need as a result of the damage from the eruption.

News: Peru races to save birds threatened by oil spill after Tonga volcano eruption

A Lima zoo is racing to save dozens of seabirds, including protected penguins, left covered in oil after 6,000 barrels of crude spilled off Peru’s coast because of waves from the Tonga volcano eruption.

More than 40 birds, including Humboldt penguins – listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – were brought to the Parque de Las Leyendas zoo after being rescued from polluted beaches and nature reserves.

More than 40 birds were rescued from areas polluted by an oil spill in Peru. Photo: Reuters

Peru has declared an environmental emergency after almost a million litres of crude spilled into the sea on January 22 when a tanker was hit by big waves while offloading at a refinery.

The abnormally large waves were triggered by the eruption of an undersea volcano near Tonga, thousands of kilometres away. The spill near Lima has fouled beaches and harmed the fishing and tourism industries, with crews working non-stop to clean up the mess.

According to the environment ministry, more than 180 hectares – equivalent to around 270 soccer fields – of beach and 713 hectares of sea were affected, as sea currents spread the spilled oil along the coast.

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Biologist Guillermo Ramos of Peru’s Serfor forestry service said more animals would die if the oil spread.

“There are species here that feed on crustaceans and fish that are already contaminated,” he said, adding that Serfor staff had found many dead birds and sea otters on beaches and in natural reserves since the spill.

More than 150 bird species in Peru depend on the sea for nutrition and reproduction.

Juan Carlos Riveros, scientific director of rescue NGO Oceana Peru, said the oil could affect the reproductive capacity of some animals and cause birth defects, especially in birds, fish and turtles.
Agence France-Presse

Question prompts:

  • “The ecological effects of natural disasters such as Tonga’s volcanic eruption can be severe and far-reaching.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer using News and your own knowledge.

  • The Peruvian government has sought compensation from Spanish oil company Resol, which owns the tanker. But the company denies responsibility, saying maritime authorities had issued no warning of abnormal waves after the Tonga eruption. In your opinion, who should be responsible for cleaning the spill, and why?

Issue: Tonga volcano eruption may have ripple effects on global climate

The Tonga volcano eruption may not have been big enough to affect global climate, but volcanic eruptions are an underestimated natural cause of climate variability, scientists have said.

Wei Ke, an associate professor on atmospheric science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the eruption’s changes required further monitoring even if they did not affect global climate.

“A volcanic eruption is a very important factor in climate change, and some experts believe it is one of the ultimate factors affecting climate change,” Wei said, adding that in some cases, it could lead to an extreme drop in temperature, “resulting in a series of social impacts”.

A large cloud of ash, steam and gas rises above the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. Photo: Tonga Geological Services/ZUMA Press Wire Service/dpa

Volcanoes send sulphur dioxide (SO2) into a layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere where it combines with water to form sulphuric acid aerosols. This creates a haze layer of tiny droplets that reflects incoming solar radiation, causing a cooling of the Earth’s surface.

For up to three years, the aerosols can stay in the stratosphere, moved around by winds and causing significant cooling worldwide, according to the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research.

For instance, the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 injected about 15 million tonnes of SO2 into the stratosphere and resulted in a 0.6 degree Celsius drop in global temperature over the next 15 months.

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The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption was much smaller, ejecting an estimated 400,000 tonnes of SO2 mass – not enough to change the global climate, scientists said.

However, an Earth scientist from Hong Kong said the impact of volcanic eruptions had been underestimated.

“Volcanic eruptions are an underestimated natural cause of climate variability including severe weather events such as floods and droughts,” said Wyss Yim, honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Yim also pointed to a study published in 2018 in which debris from Mexico’s El Chichon volcano eruption in 1982 entered the stratosphere. This resulted in Hong Kong’s second wettest year since records began in 1884, caused by the predominance of onshore wind during the year.
Staff writer

Question prompts:

  • Why is Wyss Yim concerned about massive volcanic eruptions? Explain how an eruption larger than the recent one near Tonga could affect Hong Kong.

  • What sorts of “social impacts” might Wei Ke be referring to in paragraph 3 of Issue? Identify and elaborate on TWO examples using Glossary and your own knowledge.

How was Hong Kong made? By a really big volcanic eruption


  1. Climate variability: the way aspects of climate (such as temperature and precipitation) differ from an average. It includes changes that last longer than individual weather events. Climate variability occurs because of natural and sometimes periodic changes in the circulation of the air and ocean, volcanic eruptions, and other factors.

  2. El Chichon volcano eruption: refers to the eruption of the active volcano El Chichon in Mexico in 1982. It injected a massive amount of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, which circulated the Earth in three weeks. While El Chichon’s eruption caused colder temperatures than normal in Alaska, Greenland, the Middle East and China, it triggered selective winter warming patterns observed within northern hemisphere continents in 1982 and 1983, with temperatures increasing over North America, Europe and Siberia.

  3. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano: an underwater volcano in the South Pacific located about 65km north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa. Its previous known eruptions were in 1912, 1937, 1988, 2009 and 2014 to 2015.

  4. Social impacts: effects on a community’s well-being. This can be related to issues concerned with climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc.

  5. Stratosphere: one of the layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where the ozone layer is located

  6. Sulphur dioxide: a colourless, toxic gas released naturally during volcanic activity. It affects the human respiratory system and irritates the eyes. In large amounts in the atmosphere, it can cause acid rain, which can harm forests and aquatic life.

  7. Tonga: officially called the Kingdom of Tonga. It is a country in the southwest Pacific consisting of more than 170 small islands.

  8. TNT (trinitrotoluene): a powerful explosive substance

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