AT least four people have died after a powerful earthquake struck near the Solomon Islands this morning, triggering a small tsunami that swept into isolated island communities and sparked tsunami alerts across the South Pacific.
The 8.0 magnitude quake struck 340km east of Kira Kira in the Solomons.
A tsunami measuring 0.9 metres (three feet) hit remote Temotu province in the Solomons following the quake but warnings were later canclled for other South Pacific islands, as well as for Australia and New Zealand, as the danger of a major destructive wave passed.
Lata hospital's director of nursing, Augustine Pilve, told New Zealand television that five people had been killed, including a boy about 10 years old, adding that more casualties were possible as officials made their way to at least three villages that may have been hit.
"It's more likely that other villages along the coast of Santa Cruz may be affected," he said.
Disaster officials in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara told the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corp. that they believed six people were dead and that five villages had suffered damage.
Solomon Islands Police Commissioner John Lansley said it was too early to fully assess the damage or casualty numbers, and said authorities hoped to send aircraft to the region on Thursday to help determine the extent of the damage.
Luke Taula, a fisheries officer in Lata on Santa Cruz Island, which took the brunt of the tsunami, said it 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 said.
The worst damage would be to villages on the western side of a point that protects the main township, he said.
About 5,000 people lived in and around the town, but the area was deserted as people fled to higher ground, Taula said, adding that aftershocks were being felt.
The Solomons, perched on the geologically active "Pacific Ring of Fire", were hit by a devastating tsunami following an 8.1 magnitude quake in 2007. At least 50 people were killed then and dozens left missing and more than 13 villages destroyed.
"It's an area that is very prone to earthquakes," said Jonathan Bathgate, seismologist at Geoscience Australia. "We've had seven 6-plus magnitude earthquakes in this region since January 31, so it has been very active in the past week."
Initial signs were that the tremor was a thrust quake, in which vertical movement in the continental plates generates higher risk of tsunami, Bathgate added.
"The earthquake would have to be quite a bit bigger to make a much more sizeable tsunami," said Brian Shiro, geophysicist for the center in Hawaii.
"The good news for the folks in the region is that the tsunami appears to be constrained to the areas we've listed in our bulletins and it's not going to be a an oceanwide threat."