14 Jan 2015

Tonga volcano forces flight to turn around

1:51 pm on 14 January 2015

An Air New Zealand flight has been forced to turn around and head back to Auckland this morning due to continuous volcanic activity in Tonga.

Domestic and international flights into the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa were cancelled again today as a new plume of smoke reaching 6000 metres in the air billowed out of Hunga Ha'apai.

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Photo: supplied

Air New Zealand said it was scheduled to land in Nuku'alofa at 10.30am, and as a result, the return flight was also cancelled.

However, they said a flight due to depart Auckland for Tonga was still scheduled for 4.15pm.

Two New Zealand scientists were on board the flight, hoping to find out more information about the continuous eruptions.

The Tongan government had requested the scientists' assistance through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tongan Deputy secretary for the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources Taaniela Kula, said ash and tephra spurting from the volcano since late December seemed to have stopped last night.

But he said a large cloud of steam and gas emerged this morning.

Mr Kula said scientists were hoping to travel to the volcano by boat today.

"Given that there is no more ash coming out, indicated by dark coloured eruption, it's mostly steam at this stage and not much material erupting, we're now looking forward to going out and surveying out in a clear day like today.

"Hopefully we can get out there today."

Prayers for divine intervention

The Tongan community in New Zealand is praying for divine intervention to clear the ash from the volcano.

Head of the Auckland Tongan Advisory Council Melino Maka said a change in the wind direction would certainly help to clear the ash and allow flights to resume.

"It is really difficult because apparently from what I saw on social media the wind hasn't changed so it is difficult to predict what will happen next."

Hunga Ha'apai

A satellite image of the Hunga Ha'apai volcano. Photo: NASA

Facts about the Hunga Ha'apai volcano

  • It is an ocean volcano that is about 62km from the main island, Tongatapu
  • It has regularly been erupting for decades
  • The volcano last erupted in 2009, forming an island
  • Just after Christmas last year, it resumed activity and GNS said it appeared to be forming a larger island at present

Why ash is a danger for air travel

  • Volcanic ash melts inside a hot engine
  • Ash also conducts electricity when it is wet so there is a possibility of shorting out electronics
  • A build-up of ash in the engine can cause it to stall and shutdown
  • (Attributed to the Science Media Centre)