Volcano Erupts Near Tonga

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga (AP) - An undersea volcano erupted off the
coast of Tonga shooting clouds of smoke, steam and ash thousands of
feet (meters) into the sky above the South Pacific ocean, officials
said Wednesday.

Spectacular columns spewed out of the sea about 6 miles (10
kilometers) from the southwest coast off the main island of
Tongatapu - an area where up to 36 undersea volcanoes are
clustered, said Tonga's geological service head, Keleti Mafi.

"It's a very significant eruption, on quite a large scale," he
told The Associated Press.

There was no sign the offshore eruption posed any danger to
residents, he said, with trade winds blowing gas and steam away
from the island.

Residents said the steam and ash column first appeared on Monday
morning, after a series of sharp earthquakes were felt in the
capital, Nuku'alofa.

"This is not unusual for this area and we expect this to happen
here at any time," Mafi said, adding that a similar eruption took
place there in 2002.

A Defense Force boat was expected to travel to the region soon
to check the area.

It was likely the underwater eruption was taking place to the
west of the low-lying twin volcanic islands of Hunga Tonga and
Hunga Ha'apai, within sight of Nuku'alofa.

Large amounts of pumice thrown up by the erupting volcano would
likely clog beaches on the southern coast of nearby Fiji islands
within a short time, he said.

Tonga, a 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia
and Tahiti, is part of the Pacific "ring of fire" - an arc of
earthquake and volcanic zones stretching from Chile in South
America through Alaska and down through Vanuatu to Tonga.


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