The May 2021 eruption.
I want to post this chapter of the Decade Volcano book today after having read the news and understanding that many will feel uncomfortable about scandal rumors in science generally and in the Congo specifically, given its tragic, messed up history.
This chapter makes it clear why there is a volcano observatory in Goma. Millions of lives are at stake, and those people (as well as the UN troops there, who do conduct evacuation drills as possible) deserve an efficient, trustworthy, well-funded, around-the-clock emergency management and volcanic hazard monitoring system. Now.
There isn’t much point in going to Mars and doing other wonderful things in the name of humanity, if we can’t take care of people facing a complex but clear-cut problem like this here on Earth.
And real-life SEP fields don’t make you feel half as good as the happy buzz you get from helping someone.
Here’s a chance to help millions of Congolese and Rwandans BEFORE the tragedy. Science and government — local, regional, and world wide — need to grasp this nettle, weed out the problem(s), and plant something that will quickly grow deep roots and a sturdy stalk.
Anyway, here’s the chapter.
Edit, April 2, 2021: Just wanted to pass along something hopeful, too.
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, was an outstanding candidate.
Recent tragedies had highlighted its threat to tens of thousands of people living nearby (today, that number is over a million):
- Volcanic gases seep into ponds and lakes and, under the right circumstances, can build up to the point where the water “explodes,” unleashing all that gas in one deadly event. Two volcanic lakes in Africa had done this during the mid-1980s, releasing clouds of carbon dioxide that suffocated people and livestock in nearby villages.
- Lake Kivu, at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo also has the right conditions, but it’s much bigger and contains vast quantities of methane as well as carbon dioxide. There are cities on its shores, not villages — the toll of such an explosion here would shock the world.
- On January 10, 1977, fissures had opened up, high on Nyiragongo’s flank, and the volcano’s famous lava lake, present since at least 1894, had 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, as noted below.)
Another thing that concerned Decade Volcano experts was the lack of monitoring at Nyiragongo.
As a concerned USGS team (Tuttle et al.) put it 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.
Unfortunately, what the public got instead of education was genocide and military strife that claimed millions of lives and devastated the region.
MONUSCO — the UN peacekeeping force — is still there. Good news: Peacekeepers are holding eruption drills and helping to educate the public.
But back in the International Decade, both Nyiragongo and its neighbor Nyiramurga erupted in 1994.
This was 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 was not a good decade in which to hold workshops and field trips at Mount Nyiragongo, and this hindered Decade Volcano work there.
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.
That’s one reason why there is a little more scientific evidence available on Nyiragongo’s most recent eruption, in 2002.
Here’s what happened.
Basically, the old fissures from 1977 reopened in 2002 and the new lava lake drained.
Nyiragongo’s lava is very hot and runny.
This time, two separate streams of molten rock poured into Goma, trashing the city’s eastern section and killing 47 people. Another 60 to 100 died when a central-depot gas station surrounded by lava exploded, though the precise circumstances aren’t clear. (Balagizi et al.; Brown et al.)
And according to this 2016 video, the 2002 eruption came while the Goma volcanologists’ dismissal papers were on the table.
They got in trouble for predicting the lava flows!
Since then, I have read, the first peaceful transition of power in the Congo since colonial days happened in the 2019 elections. Things are a little better now.
However, now Goma’s volcano observatory reportedly is losing its World Bank funding.
If it is forced to shut down, there will be no local monitoring of either Nyiragongo or potentially deadly Lake Kivu.
Around about 2024, the volcano’s lava lake could drain out again, per current estimates. That is, if an earthquake doesn’t open the flank fissures before then.
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 look like that because they’re on a volcano. The uniformed men are Virunga National Park rangers, also there to protect tourists from human attacks. All this, and then they camp out above a lava lake. Wow — what an experience!
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 (GVP) 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.
I can’t confirm it, but the Aviation Code is probably Green (Normal).
The GVP has the latest activity reports posted here.
- Eruption styles: With that extremely fluid lava, Nyiragongo should be a shield volcano, like Kilauea in Hawaii, but instead its walls are very steep. 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 goes beyond the scope of this book. See Balagizi et al. in the reference list for details.
- Biggest recorded event: The city of Goma is built on the huge Buyinga lava flow. This happened 700-800 years ago and covers an area of almost 300 square miles.
- Most recent eruption: 2002.
- Past history: See the GVP for details.
Unfortunately, no online monitoring information is available for Nyiragongo.
Your best bet is the GVP latest activity page.
Satellites provide a lot of useful information for volcanologists.
Goma Volcano Observatory is also still up. Staff there can’t do much fieldwork because of the security situation, but they do monitor Nyiragongo’s seismicity, as well as GPS and spectroscopy network data, regularly from Goma.
Aviation ash advisories, when needed, are issued by the Toulouse Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC).
Featured image: 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)
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Brown, S.K.; Jenkins, S.F.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Odbert, H.; and Auker, M. R. 2017. Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6: 15.
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