- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

NUKU’ALOFA, TONGA (AP) - A powerful 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Friday in the Pacific Ocean, shaking an erupting underwater volcano off Tonga’s main island and raising fears of increased lava and ash flows, officials said.

There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from the quake, which was felt more than 1,875 miles (3,000 kilometers) away in New Zealand. A tsunami warning for islands within 625 miles (1,000 kilometers) of the epicenter was canceled two hours later.

“We are quite lucky not to get a tsunami,” Tongan government chief seismologist Keleti Mafi told The Associated Press.

But he warned the powerful quake “will directly affect the eruption” of the volcano about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the southwest coast of Tongatapu island and could lead to more molten lava and ash flowing into the sea. A column of smoke and steam was rising 13 miles (20 kilometers) into the sky.

“The strength of the earthquake could crack the volcano’s (undersea) vent and allow more magma (molten rock) to be ejected,” Mafi said.

A check of the volcano Thursday from a boat two miles (3.2 kilometers) away from the vent showed about “a 10-meter (33-foot) depth of lava at the vent” standing up out of the ocean.

“It’s grown out of the sea,” he said, adding the violent eruption meant “it’s very risky to go closer.”

With most of the volcano underwater, much of the ash was soaking into the water rather than spewing high into the air.

David Bellwood, a marine biology professor at Australia’s James Cook University, said the flowing lava would have little effect on marine life _ it will eventually harden and create new land _ but a large amount of ash would kill anything in the immediate vicinity.

“In the short term it is very damaging and will have limited, localized effects,” Bellwood said, noting that the ash could kill reefs and marine animals alike. “But an underwater explosion is really a wonderful thing, it’s creating new land. This kind of activity helps develop reef systems and helps preserve marine life.”

The quake struck about 130 miles (200 kilometers) south-southeast of the capital, Nuku’Alofa, at a depth of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers), the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The agency recorded a 5.3-magnitude aftershock in the same region two hours after the initial quake.

Officials in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, were relieved the 170-island archipelago appeared to have suffered no injuries or damage.

“Quite remarkable, given the magnitude of it. We might have gotten off lightly,” the national police commander, Chris Kelly, said.

“The house really moved, the trees were swaying and the ground was rippling,” he said.

Local resident Dana Stephenson said the quake started with “deep rumblings … then side-to-side movement which seemed to go on forever but I guess was about 40 seconds _ which is long enough.”

Radio stations in Tonga broadcast warnings that people should move away from coastal villages due to the tsunami threat that Kelly said was later canceled.

New Zealand seismologist Craig Miller said “a long, low rolling motion” from the quake was reported by residents on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

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