A stream of lava rushing from one of the planet’s most active volcanoes has killed at least 32 people, forced hundreds of thousands to flee and destroyed hundreds of homes and drinking water infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mount Nyiragongo—home to one of the world's largest lava lakes—remains active, leading officials to issue evacuation orders for Goma, a city of more than one million inhabitants located a few miles from the volcano, last Wednesday.
For years, the volcano has been “like a pot of soup that’s bubbling quietly over in the corner,” said Ben Andrews, a geologist and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program. Then, on May 22, the volcano released a dangerous, glowing front of lava—in some places, three stories tall—toward Goma. A consortium of scientists now says they have detected magma under the city and nearby Lake Kivu that could be unleashed by continued earthquakes and tremors there.
“There’s still a good bit of lava that hasn’t been released,” said Pierre-Yves Burgi, a geophysical modeler at the University of Geneva who has spent years studying Nyiragongo, in an interview last week. “We need to wait for the earth to stop moving.”
A looming question now is how citizens and scientists could have been caught so off-guard. Volcano observatories, including one at Goma, are meant to look for signs of trouble and raise the alarm. However, for months, scientists at Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG), which monitors Nyiragongo, have warned the site lacked the funding, resources and infrastructure necessary to closely observe the volcano and forecast major eruptions. After the World Bank declined to renew a multiyear, $2 million funding program amid embezzlement allegations, OVG struggled to pay for internet and fuel to transport researchers to the volcano.
"If we don't do regular measurements and announce the eruption a few days beforehand, the population won't have time to evacuate and people will die," OVG volcanologist Honore Ciraba told Reuters in March.
Without an internet connection, the observatory was unable to conduct comprehensive seismic checks on Nyiragongo from October 2020 until this April, when it received funding from a U.S. partner, according to Reuters. "As soon as the internet was restored, we had started recording the warning signals, but since we did not have previous data, we thought it was the start of volcanic activity. Hence this surprise,” OVG's scientific director told local radio on the Sunday after the eruption.
Kenneth W. Sims, a geologist at the University of Wyoming, says civil strife in the region had further complicated the already “very difficult situation” for OVG’s scientists. “It’s been a real struggle for them,” he said. Still, last week, “to a certain extent, greater monitoring would’ve helped.”
Nyiragongo most recently erupted in 2002, killing 250 people and leaving 120,000 without homes. The 11,385-foot-tall volcano also erupted in 1977, killing between 400 and 1,500 people.
In the week after a fissure released the initial stream of lava toward Goma, the area experienced hundreds of earthquakes and tremors. Ashfall around the volcano and surrounding towns has been visible in satellite data, according to the Smithsonian Institution, and cracks have opened in the ground, some stretching entire roadways, CNN reported. The intensity of the tremors has started to decrease, Kasereka Mahinda, OVG’s scientific director, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle last week.
Even without close monitoring, the recent events were not a total surprise to volcanologists around the world. Not only does the chemical composition of Nyiragongo’s magma make it especially fluid and fast-flowing, but the mountain’s lava lake has been “growing dramatically for a while,” Sims said, as Goma’s population also ballooned. “It’s a very dangerous volcano,” he said. “The potential for it to be a disaster, humanitarian-wise, was always there.”
Researchers have noted that Nyiragongo’s volcanic activity in the last five years has mirrored activity in the years preceding the 1977 and 2002 eruptions. Last fall, new scientific models based on previous eruptions suggested Nyiragongo’s next was on the horizon and could happen between 2024 and 2027—or even sooner if triggered by a seismic event.
“We didn’t say the eruption was imminent,” said Burgi, who co-authored the paper, “but that in the coming months and years, it could happen. There was danger.”
Residents told news reporters last week that they were still completely stunned by Saturday’s event. "We weren't even expecting this. It surprised us," resident Kanduki Grace told Africanews. Another resident, John Kilosho, told Reuters about the panic that set in as "the entire city (was) covered by a light that is not electricity or lamps.” “We don't know what to do,” he said.
In the coming days and weeks, scientists will use a variety of tools and methods to try to forecast severe earthquakes or, potentially, a second surge of magma.
Many other volcano observatories around the world are in similar, cash-strapped positions, Andrews said. Only a few dozen of the planet’s approximately 1,500 potentially active volcanoes are heavily monitored, the BBC reported in 2017. And, as two scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey wrote in April of this year, “some of the most volcanically active nations lack the will or resources to fund programs that support natural hazards research,” like volcano observaties. “It’s sad. It’s more common than we would like,” Andrews said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of volcanoes that are under-monitored.”