Mount Nyiragongo is never truly calm. A permanent lake of lava bubbling inside the summit crater of the mountainous volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the few locations on the planet.
Fractures opened up in the volcano's rocky walls, pouring fast-moving lava down its slopes, and conditions suddenly exploded late on May 22, local time. Any of it made its way to Goma, a six-mile-wide metropolis with a population of 1.5 million inhabitants. The night sky glowed crimson as lava, often three stories high, rushed through the streets of many villages surrounding Goma, swallowing any structures it came across and setting them on fire. There have been 15 reported casualties as of this writing, with the figure predicted to increase in the coming days.
According to figures, two early eruptions of Nyiragongo, in 1977 and 2002, were full-fledged disasters. lava floods killed between 600 and 2,000 people in 1977. Molten rock obliterated up to a quarter of Goma in 2002, displacing 120,000 people and killing about 250 people due to carbon dioxide asphyxiation, burns, and a lava-triggered gas station blast.
Volcanologists are worried every time Nyiragongo displays signs of life because of previous disasters. "It's one of Africa's most deadly volcanoes," says Benoît Smets, a geohazards specialist at Tervuren, Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa.
The dangerous reputation of Nyiragongo is attributed to a complete storm of causes. Because of the region's geologic complexity, the lava is surprisingly fluid, capable of moving at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Vast quantities of deadly carbon dioxide gas may also be released by eruptions. Since millions of inhabitants remain under the volcano's shadow, this is highly concerning.
When you factor in the region's political unrest and violence, Nyiragongo becomes a very difficult volcano to monitor. Despite the best efforts of the Goma Volcano Observatory, which was founded in 1986 in the city of the same name, no strong warning signals were observed before the most recent eruption.
According to Corentin Caudron, a volcanologist at the Institute of Earth Sciences in Grenoble, France, the fiery mountain is capable of causing "the kind of eruptions you really fear."
The weight of accumulating magma or an earthquake pushes open fissures in the sides of the mountain at Nyiragongo, resulting in the disastrous draining of the lava lake or the explosion of magma deposited further underground.
Like the volcanoes that produce them, specific eruptions have their own distinct habits and properties, and no two are alike. Monitoring volcanoes for signs of impending paroxysms is challenging, and Nyiragongo's recent eruption is a prime example of these difficulties.
Nyiragongo's summit crater continues to fill up with magma during eruptions, and it has been doing so since the 2002 eruption. A second vent opened at the summit in 2016. Volcanologists flown in by UN peacekeepers in 2020 found the lava lake was filling up faster than ever before, thanks to UN peacekeepers shielding the scientists from armed rebels in the region. While it is a concerning sight, scientists are unsure if the lava lake's height indicates the volcano's readiness to erupt.
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