Africa has many active volcanoes. Why was Nyiragongo the only one to make the Decade Volcano list?
Limits on funding and other resources forced volcanologists to choose carefully.
And Mount Nyiragongo, in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stood out as a candidate for this 1990s program.
Recent tragedies had highlighted its threat to tens of thousands of people living nearby (today, that number is over a million):
A deceptively tranquil picture.
Balagizi et al. estimate some 300 km3 of carbon dioxide and 60 km3 of methane are currently trapped in Lake Kivu’s saline bottom water layer. (Image: followtheseinstructions, CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Two volcanic lakes in Cameroon overturned during the mid-1980s, releasing clouds of carbon dioxide that killed many people, as well as livestock.A similar but much larger body of water — Lake Kivu — sits at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo. What are the chances that Lake Kivu might have a catastrophic overturn?
The lake is back, and at a very low level in this 2016 image. In 1977, just before the eruption, it was almost up to the crater rim. (Image: Nina R., CC BY 2.0)
- On January 10, 1977, fissures opened up, high on Nyiragongo’s flank, and the volcano’s famous lava lake, present since at least 1894, drained out in less than an hour. Several villages were destroyed; casualty estimates vary, but Brown et al. report a probable toll of 50 to 100 lives.How and why did this breach happen? Could it happen again? (Spoiler: It did, in 2002.)
Another thing that concerned volcanologists was the lack of monitoring.
A USGS team (Tuttle et al.) noted in 1990:
The variety of volcano-related hazards which threaten the inhabitants in the Lake Kivu area (lava flows, explosive phreatic eruptions, and volcanic heating and overturn of deep lake waters) make a basic monitoring system essential . . . To save lives in the event of a dangerous eruption, all residents must know what is expected of them if a warning is sounded: which way to run, how far, and how long to stay away. This will require a massive public education effort.
What the public got instead was genocide and military strife that claimed millions of lives and devastated the region.
This refugee camp near Goma was home to about 250,000 Rwandans in 1994. (Image: Jimic be via Wikimedia. See link for CC licenses.)
To make matters worse, both Nyiragongo and another active volcano in the neighborhood erupted in 1994 — bad timing, since there were now about a million refugees from the Rwandan genocide camped around Goma, the provincial capital only a few miles from Nyiragongo’s summit, on now-hardened 1977 lava flows.
Also, the city was busting at the seams as rural Congolese villagers poured in to escape the fighting around their homes.
Fortunately, neither eruption had a direct impact on these vulnerable people, though air traffic in the international relief effort was affected and there were disagreements among expert consultants that needed sorting out.
All in all, the 1990s were not a good time to hold Decade Volcano workshops and field trips at Mount Nyiragongo.
But the international volcanology community did not forget the region and its people. Quite the contrary!
Somehow, locals and foreigners worked together to establish a volcano observatory in Goma and to staff it with trained local observers.
This is one reason why there is a little more scientific evidence available on Nyiragongo’s most recent eruption, in 2002.
Basically, the old fissures from 1977 reactivated in 2002 and the new lava lake drained. This time, two separate streams of molten rock poured into the city, trashing eastern Goma and killing 47 people. Another 60 to 100 died when a central-depot gas station surrounded by lava exploded, though it’s not clear exactly what happened there. (Balagizi et al.; Brown et al.)
And according to the following video, the eruption came while the Goma volcanologists’ dismissal papers were on the table.
They got in trouble for predicting the lava flows!
I don’t know anything about DR Congo politics but this video is from 2016. Since then, I have read, the first peaceful transition of power here since colonial days happened in the 2019 elections. Things are a little better now.
We’ve only scratched the surface with this brief introduction. There are many geological and human problems here, but there is also hope. There is always hope.
And — surprise! — at Nyiragongo and a few other places in the Virunga hills, there are also gorillas. In the mist.
The leaves are scorched and thinned from volcanic fumes. The uniformed men are Virunga National Park rangers, there to protect from human attacks — I understand the gorillas are pretty laidback, and if they did get hostile, gunfire would probably only irritate them more. Then the group climbed Nyiragongo — what an experience!
Mount Nyiragongo’s Location:
1.52° S, 29.25° E, North Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The GVP Volcano Number is 223030.
Per the Global Volcanism Program website:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 2,416
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 31,145
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 1,006,436
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 9,087,529
The lava lake is back, and there is at least one spatter cone active in the inner crater terraces.
Update, October 14, 2020: This is concerning:
Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist at the Luigi Vanvitelli University of Campania . . . and his colleagues found the lava lake there filling at an alarming rate, raising the risk that the molten rock could burst through the crater walls once again. Their analysis suggests peak hazard will arrive in 4 years, although they believe an earthquake could trigger a crisis earlier. Adding to the concerns, the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO), the only monitoring station in the region, is losing its financial support from the World Bank. Tedesco’s assessment is blunt. “This is the most dangerous volcano in the world!”
- Eruption styles: Nyiragongo is the only known volcano to have such runny lava and such steep sides. That is a deadly combination, as people learned in 1977 and 2002. It also probably means that Nyiragongo is capable of explosive eruptions, too, though none have been reported in historic times. However, comparatively small underground magma/water (phreatomagmatic) explosions have happened close to and even underneath Lake Kivu. In terms of hazards, another threat is natural carbon dioxide vents scattered around the area that kill animals and sometimes people. The gas sometimes accumulates in homes and low-lying places. Dangerous elements like fluorine and sulfuric compounds are also present in the air and water. And then there is the gas in Lake Kivu — a topic that’s too much to cover in this post. See Balagizi et al. for a detailed account of that and other risks.
- Biggest recorded event: Goma is built on the Buyinga lava flow, which happened 700 to 800 years ago and covers an area of almost 300 square miles.
- Most recent eruption: 2002.
- Past history: See the GVP for details.
Satellites provide a lot of useful information.
Goma Volcano Observatory staff can’t do much fieldwork because of the security situation, but they do monitor seismicity, as well as GPS and spectroscopy network data, regularly from Goma. Per Balagizi et al., they hope to eventually include other volcano monitoring techniques as well as to incorporate studies of Lake Kivu into their routine.
In this UN peacekeeper image from 2016, Virunga Park rangers contemplate Nyiragongo’s lava lake, while stars shine overhead. Balagizi et al. dedicated their paper to the rangers who have given their lives defending the park. (Image: MONUSCO, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Featured image: MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh, CC BY-SA 2.0.
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