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Underwater earthquake hits Pacific volcano

A 7.9-MAGNITUDE earthquake struck yesterday 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 3,000 kilometers away in New Zealand.

A tsunami warning for islands within 1,000 kilometer of the epicenter was canceled two hours later.

"We are quite lucky not to get a tsunami," Tongan government chief seismologist Keleti Mafi said.

But he warned the powerful quake "will directly affect the eruption" of the volcano about 10km 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 20 kilometers into the sky.

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

A check of the volcano on Thursday from a boat 3.2 kilometers away from the vent showed about "a 10-meter 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 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."


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