A huge earthquake shook the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Papua New Guinea this afternoon, generating a tidal wave that crashed ashore and damaged a supermarket and other buildings.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but communications were cut with Rabaul and nearby Kokopo, the two towns in the area of northeast Papua New Guinea where the tsunami hit.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency said the undersea quake registered 7.8 magnitude and the U.S. Geological Survey put it at 8.0. Quakes that strong can cause widespread damage and heavy casualties in populated areas.
The quake’s epicenter was 20 miles off Rabaul, said John Minsch, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center in Denver, Colo.
Aftershocks were still being felt two hours after the quake, said a supervisor with Lihir gold mine, about 90 miles to the north of Rabaul in New Ireland province. The man spoke to Australian Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
“There is no damage on Lihir and I don’t think there’s big damage at Rabaul. I was able to speak to someone there before the phones went,” the mining supervisor said. “That person told me a small tidal wave came ashore at Rabaul and near Kokopo.”
Nau FM radio station in Port Moresby, the capital, said “a small tidal wave” hit the Tropicana supermarket at Rabaul, causing water damage. A reporter there said she had not heard of any injuries.
Volcanoes Are a Concern
Rabaul, a port town, used to be the capital of East New Britain, a region of Papua New Guinea. The capital was moved to Kokopo in 1994 after a major volcanic eruption that killed two people and almost buried Rabaul in ash. The populations of the two towns were not immediately available.
One of the three volcanoes above Rabaul has been rumbling and spewing clouds of smoke for the past month, and the ash cloud has caused minor health problems in both Rabaul and Kokopo. Vulcanologists have said previous minor earthquakes in the region were unrelated to the volcanic activity.
Minsch said the 8.0 magnitude meant Thursday’s quake was almost 10 times stronger than the one that rocked the San Francisco Bay area during the World Series in 1989.
Papua New Guinea is located just north of Australia. In 1997, a giant tsunami caused by an undersea earthquake killed more than 3,500 people near Aitapi, on the northwest coast of mainland Papua New Guinea.