If anyone had any doubt that the world's volcanoes are all becoming more active they need look no farther than the giant Mt. Nyiragongo in the east Congo.
Vulcanologists monitoring the awakening giant believe that previous eruptions may be dwarfed by the eruption that may be coming.
The volcano looms large, casting its ominous shadow across the city of Goma. The major city, and surrounding villages and smaller cities, has a total population of more than two million.
During January 2002 lava covered one-third of the city.
That disaster saw smoke, poisonous gases, and steaming molten lava boil over the countryside as far as Lake Kivu. The eruption decimated the local airport. UN workers, and volunteers from many different countries, made a Herculean effort to bring the airfield back into nominal service.
Authorities are worried that a bigger erution may destroy the city entirely. They remember a terrible eruption in 1977 that scoured the region—but more than 30 years ago the population of Goma was tiny compared to today.
Others are concerned that many could die, trapped in a burning city without any quick avenue of escape. Some regional authorities also point out that the topography surrounding the Congolese city has two primary channels or conduits for the lava flow. When Mt. Nyiragongo erupts, the superheated magma will follow one of only two natural paths.
The city lies dead center in one of the lava flow channels.
According to area residents, local entrepreneurs staryed guided tours to the volcano’s peak after the last violent eruption. Visitors are led to the rim, skirting smolering rocks and jets of poisonous gas. Deep in the caulron an angry lava lake boils.
Vulcanologists have warned the tourists and their guides to stay clear of the volcano—especially its rim—but for the most part the scientists have been ignored.
Although some authorites have expressed increasing concern and have told the residents of Goma to be ready for an evacuation, most in the city seem unconcerned and go about their daily business unheeding the warnings.
Recent aerial photos taken of the caldera show it rapidly filling with huge amounts of fresh lava.
Those that monitor the volcano complain of a lack of equipment. The sensors that tracked the volcano were all destroyed during the last eruption. Because of the lack of seismological instruments and other sensing technology the vulcanologists cannot accurately predict the next eruption nor its probable level of intensity.
Several month ago, some officials demanded action when it was learned that the lava lake's red glow was reflected off the clouds. At night the glow was so brilliant that it could be seen in neighboring Uganda.
With a history of violent eruptions occurring every 10 years, scientists are betting that the volcano's getting ready to blow again. This time, they say, the physical signs all point to a huge eruption.
Many volcanoes along what is known as the African Rift Valley are becoming more active. The rift ranges from the Red Sea across much of eastern Africa to the country of Malawi.
A survey several years ago confirmed that part of the valley is separating from the continent and someday much of the region will sit under the sea.
The volcanic activity is being driven by titanic forces deep in the Earth as the crust itself is ripping and splitting apart widening the rift.
The government has been critized for not making the population abandon the region now while there is still time.
But tribal elders will have none of it. They say their fate is in the hands of God.