Tonga: Strong Earthquake Hits Polynesian Islands Hours After 7.8-Magnitude Quake Rocked Ecuador

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake rocked Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom in the Pacific, on Sunday. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) confirmed the quake and even upgraded the intensity it had reported earlier.

An earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale hit southeast of the Pacific island nation of Tonga. The Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising more than 170 islands. Most of the islands are sparsely populated. The tremors were detected just hours after a powerful earthquake, measuring 7.8, had rocked the northwestern tip of South America, killing at 77 people.

The epicenter of the earthquake that hit Tonga was about 161 miles south-southeast of Onohua on the island of Eua. The quake occurred at a depth of 66 Km. The Pacific Ocean earthquake struck at around 3:30 a.m. EST (7:30 p.m. local time), according to the USGS map. Of all the islands, about 39 are inhabited and feature forests and beaches.

The island has a population of about 5,000. It is a popular tourist destination, known for its dense rainforests, and while it doesn’t have wide variety of animals, the region is famous for scuba diving and whale watching. The region features a huge underwater cave. Eua is the only island in Tonga that has a river. It is not known if the river or the underwater cave has been affected.

The USGS had earlier tweeted the intensity of the earthquake to be 5.8 on the Richter scale based on the preliminary reading. However, as new data came in, the agency upgraded the number to 6.1. Any earthquake measuring 6 and above is considered “Strong” and cause “strong to violent shaking” in areas that are close to the epicenter.

The tremors were recorded just a few hours after a 7.8-magnitude quake rocked the northwestern tip of South America, killing 77 and injuring hundreds in Ecuador, reported USA Today. The 7.8-magnitude quake hit the central coast, flattening dozens of buildings in the town of Pedernales, near the epicenter, reported The Independent. The earthquake, considered “Major,” caused major damage to the region’s largest city of Guayaquil. Local reports indicated as many as 600 people might have been injured. The quake prompted President Rafael Correa to declare national emergency. The nation’s population of 16 million people has been urged to stay calm.

The earthquake that struck Ecuador has raised concerns about rising waves. Authorities have already urged people to evacuate coastal areas and seek shelter on higher grounds. However, Tonga hasn’t issued such a warning or advisory. Regional experts however, raised concerns about a tsunami that may hit Australia. But the continent’s Bureau of Meteorology alleviated the concerns and dismissed the possibility of large tidal waves hitting the region due to the earthquake in Tonga.

The USGS noted that the part of the South Pacific Ocean around Tonga is one of the most seismically active areas of the world. The islands are situated right above the convergence of Australia and Pacific tectonic plates. As such, even minute movements of the tectonic plates can cause mild to moderate earthquakes in the regions. In March 2015, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale struck between Tonga and Fiji. Incidentally, the Eua Island, which was the epicenter of the quake, was formed due to seismic activity.

While the earthquakes in Ecuador and Tonga happened on the weekend, two separate quakes struck Japan on Thursday and Friday. The 7.8 and 6.5 magnitude earthquakes collectively injured over 1,500 people, flattened houses and triggered major landslides, reported Business Insider. The earthquakes were followed by heavy rains, which made rescues even more complicated.

[Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images]