A huge earthquake with a magnitude of 8,0 on the Richter scale hit Pacific islands in the Tonga region early on Thursday, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported.
US authorities issued a tsunami warning for New Zealand and Fiji, officials said.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami alert for the rest of the Pacific Ocean following the temblor that struck at 4.26am local time (3.26pm GMT) in the middle of the islands.
“We have a tsunami warning for Fiji and New Zealand and for the rest of the Pacific we have a tsunami watch,” said oceanographer Nathan Becker. “That means a tsunami is likely and New Zealand and Fiji should take the appropriate action.”
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said a tsunami wave could hit Suva, Fiji, as early as 5.13am local time before affecting New Zealand’s coastal cities in the following hours, CNN reported.
The epicentre was 155km south of Neiafu island and 160km north-east of Nuku’Alofa, the main island, the USGS said. The quake was recorded 16km below the surface.
Becker stressed that it was not known whether a tsunami had formed or what the expected magnitude of any such tsunami would be.
“We are determining the situation as we have an earthquake with the right conditions to produce a tsunami, but we don’t know yet whether one was generated,” Becker explained.
On the island of Fiji, to the west of Tonga, people contacted by CNN reported no damage. David Applegate, senior science adviser for the USGS, told CNN the earthquake likely affected only “a relatively small population”.
“So far, we’ve got five responses in four city areas on the islands of Tonga, with intensities ranging from fairly light shaking up to very strong shaking,” Applegate said.
The quake was the largest recorded by the USGS since a 8,6 temblor off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in March last year.
On December 26 2004, an earthquake measuring 9,0 on the Richter scale struck off the Indonesian province of Aceh, unleashing a tsunami that killed 220Â 000 people around the Indian Ocean, most in Aceh.
The kingdom of Tonga is an independent monarchy, part of the Commonwealth. It is located about a third of the way between New Zealand and Hawaii, south of Samoa and east of Fiji.
Geologically, the Tongan islands generally comprise two types: volcanic islands rising directly from the ocean floor and seismically uplifted coral limestone islands overlaying an older volcanic base, according to Wikipedia.com.