The bizarre lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo is a glimpse of real-life science fiction.
Deep in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo sits the city of Goma, capital and economic center of the North Kivu province, engulfed by the shadow of nearby Mount Nyiragongo, which towers over the city at a staggering 11,385′. But, inside the summit crater of the mountain, the Earth is alive. Nyiragongo’s lava lake is a 650′-wide cauldron of magma bubbling with the fastest-moving lava in the world whose 2,000°F flows threaten the nearby population and endanger the scientists who are attempting to study the enigmatic volcano. It’s a little like traveling to the lava-covered planet of Mustafar from Revenge of the Sith (and it looks like Spock is exploring something similar in Star Trek Into Darkness).
“Once you’re on top, what you see is very amazing,” says Benoît Smets, Ph.D. student at the Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium. “You have a strange sensation when you feel the warm air coming from the lava lake, and you can hear the sound of bubbling lava. It’s unique.”
More than the sounds and the smells, it’s the gigantic lake of lava that makes Nyiragongo a sight to behold. “The lava lake is like a magmatic reservoir on the surface,” Smets adds, meaning that researchers can make direct observations about how the lava is behaving. Smets and his team have installed pairs of digital cameras in the crater in order to reconstruct a 3D model of the lake. Their goal is to understand its movement and how it relates to other volcanic processes such as ground deformation, volcanic gas emissions and seismic tremors. With this data, they can begin to understand what makes this lava lake erupt.
Sending teams in to study the volcano is dangerous. “For the moment the volcano isn’t accessible,” says Smets, whose supervisor was met with gunfire during his last visit. “The rebels in the area can be more dangerous than the volcano.” Smets and his team would like to use satellite imagery to study Nyiragongo, but the constant cloud cover means that the only option is to send researchers through Goma, atop the volcano, and down into the crater where the lava lake sits about 1,300′ below the summit.
Nyiragongo’s proximity to the conflicted capital city is one of the reasons it is so important to learn about how the volcano works, as the Goma people are sitting directly in Nyiragongo’s path of destruction. In 2002, an eruption killed over 100 people and destroyed nearly half of the homes in the region. “It’s dangerous because the lava moves very, very fast.” In fact, the so-called nephelinite magma is the fastest-moving lava ever seen on Earth and has been clocked at 12 mph on gentle slopes with an estimated top speed of about 60 mph.
More than just speed makes the nephelinite dangerous. When Nyiragongo erupts, it really erupts — at a rate of 350 m3/sec in 2002, about 30 times faster than typical volcanic eruptions.
So what does it look like when a lava lake erupts? “The biggest eruption I saw was in March of 2008,” Smets says. “I watched the big plates of cooled lava moving across the lake’s surface; it was very beautiful.” But, the lake can turn violent fast. “In less than one second, there was a big degassing that threw lava about 100 meters [about 300'] high. The lava lake started to overflow and rose 40 meters [about 120'] within 30 minutes. It was crazy.” Because these events are so short and unpredictable, says Smets, scientists don’t get to see them often and so we don’t have a good understanding of why they happen. He hopes that his research can provide insight into this strange and dangerous volcano so that we can protect ourselves from it.
Photos by Benoît Smets