Volcanic eruption causes cancellation of flights to Tonga

AP News
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Posted: Jan 12, 2015 10:18 PM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — All international flights to the small island nation of Tonga were cancelled Tuesday after a volcanic eruption sent plumes of ash into the sky.

Carriers are hoping at least some flights to the Pacific archipelago that's home to about 106,000 people will resume Wednesday.

Tonga Airports Ltd. Chief Executive Viliami Ma'ake said all flights arriving from, and departing to, Australia, Fiji and New Zealand had been cancelled due to ash in the atmosphere.

He said domestic services were continuing as scheduled after being disrupted earlier in the week.

Brad Scott, a volcanologist at New Zealand agency GNS Science, said volcanic activity has been recorded for several weeks in a stretch of ocean and small islands about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital, Nuku'alofa.

He said he believes the volcano may have started beneath the ocean's surface and grown until it reached the surface, essentially creating a new island. But he said details of the eruption still remain unclear.

Scott said Tonga has asked New Zealand for technical assistance, and that GNS plans to send two volcanologists to assess what's happening as soon as flights resume.

A short-lived but powerful 2009 volcanic eruption in the ocean area created some more landmass, he said. One of the things scientists want to establish is whether the latest eruption is related.

Virgin Australia spokeswoman Libby Armstrong said it had cancelled a scheduled Sydney to Tonga flight Monday and a Tonga to New Zealand flight Tuesday. She said it had scheduled additional flights for Wednesday and that the weather forecast looked promising.

Air New Zealand said in a statement that a Monday flight from Auckland to Tonga was diverted to Samoa and later returned to Auckland. It said flights on Tuesday were canceled but it had scheduled additional flights for later in the week, and that no other Pacific routes were affected.

Ma'ake, the Tonga Airports executive, said it was awaiting more detailed information about the eruption.

"I wish we knew more about what going on," he said.