In the beautiful and verdant far eastern section of the Democratic Republic of Congo (“the DRC”), the green mountainous area along the border with Rwanda lies close to a potentially serious geologic threat: towering Mount Nyiragongo remains one of the most active, and potentially lethal, volcanoes in the world. It has erupted many times during its long history. Many scientists believe that another surge of activity will occur in the future, possibly within this decade.
Volcanic activity in the region often imposes life threatening hazards upon the local population. Residents of the area must remain alert to evacuate on short notice if necessary.
A populous border region
Mount Nyiragongo (also sometimes called “Mount Niragongo”) dominates the surrounding landscape. It overlooks the border between the DRC and Rwanda.
Lake Kivu sits some 15 kilometers away to the south. It is a deep lake and holds economic importance for both nations. Two communities stretch along its eastern shore; the international boundary line separates Goma in the DRC from adjoining Gisenyi, Rwanda.
Unfortunately, hostilities in the area between the government of the DRC and the M23 Rebel group have caused considerable population disruptions within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Exact information about the size of Goma remains difficult to obtain, since many refugees have fled to the city and its environs as a result of fighting.
However, it appears that as many as 200,000 or more people may reside there. Aerial photographs of the region show many homes and small farms in the vicinity.
In September, 2012, the charitable group Oxfam estimated that some 55,000 refugees lived in a camp called “Kibati” (also known as Kanyaruchinya) at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo (north of Goma). These displaced people reside in very close proximity to the volcano.
The scope of the problem: majestic Mount Nyiragongo
Mount Nyiragongo represents a stunning sight: a traditionally cone shaped basaltic volcano topped by an impressive crater enclosing a lake of bubbling, molten lava. Reportedly, the steep slopes surrounding the summit in some locations maintain angles of fifty degrees.
During the 1960s and 1970s, geologists spent considerable time studying volcanic activity in the region. Several papers discussed the volcano in some detail.
The volcano sits along the Albertine Fault Zone within a geologically active zone known as the “Nyiragongo Complex,” a part of a wider Virunga Volcanic Field. Two older craters adjoin Mount Nyiragongo on either end: Baruta, just 1.5 kilometers to the north, and Shaheru, 2 kilometers to the south. Another active volcano, Mount Nyamuragira, reportedly stands several miles to the northwest.
From time to time in the past, geologic activity causes fissures to open within the Nyiragongo’s caldera. Lava may then flow rapidly down its steeply inclined slopes.
This situation occurred in 1977, when a huge eruption drained some lava from the crater and killed hundreds of local people. A similar catastrophe occurred in January, 2002.
The threat posed by an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo
In 2002, a stream of molten lava estimated to vary in width between 219 yards and 1,000 yards flowed all the way to Lake Kivu. It obliterated the commercial center of Goma, destroying thousands of homes, the city's cathedral and other important structures.
Fortunately, advance notice allowed most of the population to evacuate to nearby Gisenyi or casualties might have been much worse. Today, concern exists that the disrupted conditions in the region might reduce the ability of the authorities to notify everyone about an approaching lava flow.
It also poses concern that so many refugees may still reside in such close proximity to the mountain. Mount Nyiragongo potentially poses a risk to any living creature within the reach of a lava flow; predicting the exact course of an unexpected flow might prove difficult.
Mount Nyiragongo holds great value as one of the world’s most active volcanoes. However, it does potentially threaten people dwelling nearby. It remains important to keep actively monitoring the geologic activity in the region.