A major earthquake registering at magnitude 8 has hit near the Solomon Islands, generating a tsunami that is reported to have damaged dozens of homes in the South Pacific island chain. At least five people were killed.
The quake struck at 11.07am AEDT on Wednesday at a depth of 28.7 kilometres, near the Santa Cruz Islands.
A tsunami measuring 91 centimetres in height was recorded at Lata Wharf in Santa Cruz, and an 11-centimetre wave was recorded in Luganville, Vanuatu.
An earlier tsunami alert was cancelled for countries including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Kosrae, Fiji, Kiribati, Wallis and Futuna.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said the tsunami may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake centre.
ABC cited emergency service authorities in the Solomons as saying three villages were destroyed by the quake. Officials could not be reached for confirmation, with phone lines down.
Soon after the quake, a director at Lata Hospital on the main Santa Cruz island of Ndende said it was believed villages had been destroyed.
"The information we are getting is that some villages west and south of Lata along the coast have been destroyed, although we cannot confirm this yet,’’ the director said.
Solomons officials reported two 1.5-metre waves hit the western side of Santa Cruz Island, damaging about 50 homes and properties, said George Herming, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lillo.
There were not yet any official reports of injuries or deaths. Villagers were heading for higher ground as a precaution, Herming said.
Luke Taula, a fisheries officer in Lata on Santa Cruz Island, said the tsunami arrived in small tidal surges rather than as one large wave.
"We have small waves come in, then go out again, then come back in. The waves have reached the airport terminal," he told Reuters by telephone.
The worst damage would be to villages on the western side of a point that protects the main township, he said.
The tsunami would have hit nearby islands "within a matter of minutes", said Rick Bailey, head of tsunami warning services at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.
The Solomons capital Honiara, about 600km from the epicentre, recorded a wave of seven centimetres about an hour later, Mr Bailey said.
It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts
The Solomon Islands' National Disaster Management office said officials were concerned about the eastern province of Temotu.
Temotu is the easternmost province of the Solomons, about a three-hour flight from the capital, Honiara. The region has a population of around 30,000 people.
"That’s the province, which if it is going to have an effect, then they will be the first people to be impacted," the official, who did not wish to be named, told AFP. "They felt the quake."
He added that the national disaster operation centre had been activated and they were trying to contact those in Temotu province.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was “monitoring any possible impact on both life and infrastructure”.
“Early reports suggest there is some damage to low-lying areas in Lata, including the airport,” the department said in a statement. “So far there are no reports of damage to Honiara.”
“Our Embassies and High Commissions in the region are aware of the possible tsunami and are liaising with local authorities, hotels and other locations were Australians may be located. We recommend that Australians in the region continue to monitor local media and follow the advice of local authorities.”
There are 327 Australian travellers registered as being in the Solomon Islands according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Solomons deputy opposition leader Matthew Wale earlier told Fairfax Media citizens in Honiara had moved to higher ground in anticipation of a tsunami.
"There is no panic, people aren’t running. They are making their way in an orderly fashion.
"Most of the shops and offices have shut and people are milling about on their way to higher ground,’’ he said.
The quake was placed 70 kilometres west of Lata and nearly 600 kilometres from the national capital, Honiara.
But an Australian working in Honiara first learned of the earthquake when contacted by Fairfax Media.
"There is no panic on the streets. People are going on like any normal day," he said.
"We really have not heard anything about it nor that there is an imminent threat. Everything seems calm as usual."
Geoscience Australia estimated the quake could have been felt 836km from the epicentre and caused damage up to 67km away.
The magnitude 8 quake was preceded by a 6.3 magnitude tremble almost 18 hours earlier.
"There's been rumblings in the area for the last couple of weeks," said the bureau's Mr Bailey, some of it believed to be volcanic.
The area has since been hit by two large aftershocks, including a 6.4 magnitude quake 11 minutes after the major shock and one measuring 6.6 a further 31 minutes later.
While the tsunami was only measured at 91 centimetres, Professor James Goff, director of the Tsunami and Natural Hazards Research Group at the University of New South Wales, said that was not indicative of the damage that may have been done.
"We need to remember that this is the amplitude of the wave - the height from peak to trough, and also that this would have been recorded at a tide gauge, not on the land," Professor Goff said.
"Tsunamis on land can run up considerably higher than their offshore height, hence we hear that some coastal communities have sadly been destroyed. It will only be in the ensuing days and weeks that we find out how big the wave really was when it came on land."
The Solomon Islands form part of the Ring of Fire, a zone of tectonic activity around the Pacific Ocean that is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The region, on the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates, is “very susceptible to a large quake, said Jonathan Bathgate, senior seismologist at Geoscience Ausralia.
“For the last week or so, it’s been very active,” Mr Bathgate said. “I’d expect it to (remain active) for the next week or so.” Geoscience picked up seven quakes of at least a magnitude-6 reading since January 30.
The scale of the major quake – registered as having a 7.9 magnitude by Geoscience – was significant. “You get only one or two of these per year,” he said.
The main Solomon Islands quake was a shallow one, with the epicentre in the top 30km of the earth’s crust and therefore capable of generating a potentially large tsunami, he said.
The most deadly quakes in recent years include the 9.0 magnitude quake and resulting tsunami off Fukushima, Japan, on March 11, 2011, which killed almost 21,000 people. Haiti's 7.0 magnitude quake on January 12, 2010 killed about 316,000 people, while China's 7.9 magnitude quake on 12 May, 2008, left about 87,600 dead, the US Geological Survey said.
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with Ilya Gridneff, Peter Hannam, AFP and Reuters