Islands of Resilience: lessons from Tonga

A year has passed since the eruption of a massive volcano in Tonga, producing the biggest atmospheric explosion ever recorded by instrumentation - far bigger even than any nuclear bombing test. A field visit reveals resilience of the archipelago's residents and gives us cautious hope for humanity
Published in Sustainability
Islands of Resilience: lessons from Tonga
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The isolation of island states paradoxically makes them at once vulnerable but also resilient. With smaller populations and dependence on access through shipping or air routes, island states, particularly in the open oceans have key constraints in their resource usage. However, being far from major population centers can also protect these communities from ravages of major global crises.

The Kingdom of Tonga, was largely insulated from COVID when the pandemic was raging in 2020 and its first recorded case in October 2021 made it the last country to experience the disease. By then vaccines were close to delivery and the island state was able to mitigate morbidity and mortality from the disease due to this isolation. On the other hand, when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano erupted with immense ferocity on January 15, 2022, the vulnerabilities of island geographies also became apparent. The islands lost their main internet cable and temporary 2G data service had to be set up using satellite receivers. 

The eruption was so massive in scale that its effects were observed in space!  The level of water vapor and greenhouse gases injected into the atmosphere were so large that recent research suggests that this would raise the global temperature anomaly beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.  As the authors note "most large volcanic eruptions are notable for their negative perturbation on global surface temperatures, since they emit large quantities of SO2, an aerosol particulate which scatters incoming solar radiation." However, due to the immensely large water vapor increase and lack of a large counterbalancing sulfate aerosol perturbation, this eruption will actually lead to a warming anomaly.

Remarkably, despite the magnitude of the eruption being at least a hundred times the sheer energy release of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the loss of life in islands within a 50 mile radius of the blast was remarkably small. Even though a massive tsunami was generated by the blast and struck the most populated of the Tongan islands, only 3 people died in the explosion and massive ash deposition across the entire archipelago.  During my recent field visit, I learned that a mixture of indigenous learning about volcanic disaster response and a crisis response system prevented far greater loss of life. 

From a scientific perspective, the Tongan eruption highlights the rapidity of how volcanism can transform the earth. In 2015, an earlier eruption of the same massive undersea volcano had created a new bridging island which connected two surfacing parts of the caldera. NASA scientists were intrigued by how this new bridging island was able to sustain itself despite erosion from the surrounding seas. There were even parallels drawn to understanding the surface of Mars from this nascent Tongan island. Unique microbial life forms were found on the infant island.  Among the 100 or so bacterial forms picked up by genetic sequencing, researchers were unable to classify 40% into a known bacterial family. Only seven years later the same volcano erupted again and decimated the bridging island and the microbial forms it had cultivated!

Such rapidity of crises in island states provides important lessons on resilience with appropriate governance mechanisms and social safety nets. The World Bank estimated that the total damage of the 2022 eruption was around $90.4 million, which accounts for 18.75% of Tonga's GDP.  Donors such as Australia certainly helped with immediate aid, but the Tongan people exemplified social capital generation through local and diaspora networks with remarkable alacrity.

Tonga has a population of around 100,000, but over 150,000 Tongans live overseas, mainly in New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. These citizens mobilized remarkable networks through church groups, and family associations to help with the resettlement of residents from two of the islands nearest the volcano which became uninhabitable. These residents are now living on the main island Tongatapu in new villages and getting used to their new lives until they might potentially be able to return.

Marine life around the island was immediately impacted and this was a concern for food security for a country where more than 80% of the population relies on subsistence fishing for a substantial portion of their diet. However, here too the Tongans were remarkably adaptive with terrestrial agricultural shifts. At the same time the Tongan government is more determined than ever to diversify their economy. Tonga is also among a number of small island states that are willing to support deep sea mining through the International Seabed Authority with appropriate safeguards.

Tongans I spoke to during the visit noted that if nature itself could be so ferocious in its creative processes, the risk of any impacts from mining were worth their while for long-term economic security. Furthermore, the deep-sea mining would occur thousands of miles away from their own shores in international waters, but as a sponsoring state under the Law of the Sea Convention Tonga could earn a share of the earnings. Nevertheless, there remain concerns about the long-term viability of such an income stream and its environmental costs among some activist circles on the island.

The volcanic eruption has highlighted how natural and social systems can be resilient and adapt to adversity in remarkable ways. Although we must always be wary of complacence in any complex system, the ability of islands to respond to disruptions is instructive as we further develop the field of "island biogeography."  Responding to global environmental change may well require us to pay more attention to small and distant lands whose endurance may well provide vital lessons for a more sustainable future for the rest of humanity.

(Anchor Photo by Saleem H. Ali - the fenced off remains with a memorial flower at the Vakaloa Beach Resort which was decimated by the tsunami ensuing from the 2022 volcanic eruption)

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