The enormous volcanic eruption in the Pacific island nation of Tonga could cause prolonged damage to coral reefs, erode shorelines and disrupt fisheries, scientists studying satellite imagery have warned.
Southeast People, a submarine volcano that erupted on Saturday that triggered tsunami warnings over the Pacific Ocean, released sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide – two gases that create acid rain when they interact with water and oxygen in the atmosphere.
“There will probably be some more acid rain around Tonga for a while,” Shane Cronin, a volcanologist at the University of Auckland, told Reuters.
Acid rain causes widespread crop damage and can affect Tongan staple foods such as taro, maize, bananas and garden vegetables. “Depending on how long the eruptions last, food security could be compromised,” Cronin said.
Satellite images indicate that the plume is spreading westward, meaning Tonga could be spared from the acid rain at the expense of Fiji.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Fiji monitored its air quality and advised people to cover their domestic water tanks and stay indoors in case of rain.
Falling can also damage coral reefs, which were already threatened before the eruption.
Tom Schils, a marine biologist at the University of Guam, said: “Dilated parts of the reefs in the immediate impact area at Hunga Tonga were probably buried and suffocated by large deposits of volcanic ash.”
Eruptions such as the one Saturday also release more iron into the water, which could promote the growth of blue-green algae and sponges that further break down reefs, Schils told Reuters.
While scientists are not yet investigating the ground, available satellite images show a blanket as on land. In the sea, it can be harmful to marine life, according to the Tonga Geological Services, which warned that nearby seawater is contaminated with toxic volcanic effluent and that fishermen must “assume that fish in this water are poisonous or toxic”.
Tonga, home to about 100,000 people, consists of about 170 islands, 36 of which are inhabited.
Since most Tongans rely on the sea for their food and livelihoods, scientists have warned that fish perish or migrate after the eruption.
“It will take a while before the same or new fishing grounds are restored,” said Marco Brenna, a geologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
In the aftermath of the eruption, a Tongan sea level gauge recorded a 1.19-meter (about four feet) tsunami wave before stopping to report. Tsunamis are known to cause rapid coastal erosion, which in turn causes a loss of coral reefs and the ability to cope with rising waters and storm surges.
Tonga valued its natural storm buffers, including coral reefs as well as seagrasses and mangroves, at about $ 11 million a year. Before the coronavirus pandemic, its tourism industry brought in up to $ 5 million a year.
Peru oil spill
The freak waves produced by the eruption are also blamed for causing an oil spill at the Pampilla refinery in Peru, which belongs to the Spanish company Repsol.
Peruvian authorities shut down three beaches on Monday after a “limited spill” of oil off the coast of Callao and Ventanilla districts near the capital, Lima.
Ruben Ramirez, Minister of Environmental Affairs, said the accident affected a stretch of 3 km (1.8 miles) along the beaches.
“There is great damage to biodiversity, and it can even affect human health,” Ramirez said. “And therefore it was ordered that the area be cut off for all kinds of activities.”
The National Emergency Operations Center said in a statement that the spill, which occurred while unloading a tanker, was brought under control.
But Ventanilla resident Brenda Ramos told AFP the community remained concerned.
“It affects the fishermen, the population they feed on the fish, and marine animals,” Ramos said.