In the path of the volcano: a warning from history

On the 24th August AD 79, the day after the festival of Vulcanalia honouring Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, Mount Vesuvius erupted. The ash column rose well over a mile into the air, debris raining down on Pompeii and other local cities. Just before nightfall, pyroclastic flows cascaded down the side of the volcano and swept over the 5 miles to Pompeii in seconds, burying the city in between 4 and 6 metres of ash. All of the residents that had not already choked to death on the sulphur and ash were incinerated, leaving only shadows burned into walls and cavities in the rubble. After two days of throwing material out in all directions, the eruption finally finished. Once the ash had cleared, it revealed an alien and desolate landscape, with the buried ruins of a city lost for over 1700 years…

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous natural disasters in history, with the remains of the most famous city to be affected, Pompeii, attracting over 2.6 million visitors a year. As I walked around those ruins, seeing evidence of the lives of the people who lived there, I found it difficult to imagine what the terrifying final moments of those people who had owned those pots, lived in those houses, and left those shadows must have been like. I reflected on how this sort of catastrophe could and would never happen again; how with modern education and prediction methods the people in danger would be warned, given those vital few moments in order to escape. However, it appears that I was wrong.

The UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is around 20,000 men strong, working tirelessly to put an end to the war that has raged non-stop for the last 20 years in the country. Neighbouring Rwanda has also seen more than its fair share of conflict, with the 1994 genocide still affecting the politics of the region today. The people that have been misplaced by these conflicts and political oppression, moving east away from the more unstable parts of the DRC, and west from Rwanda and drought ridden Burundi and Uganda to try to rebuild their lives, often seeing the city as the prime place to do just that. Goma is one such city, with a booming local economy and shelter from the difficult political atmosphere of surrounding areas. On the banks of Lake Kivu in the Great Rift Valley, it is the perfect place for fisherman to prosper, as well as having good farmland and forest areas for crops and wood. The sprawling city has nearly 1 million people living there, and covers an area of nearly 30 square miles, and has been affected by the local volcano less than 10 miles away, Nyiragongo, twice in the last 40 years. It lies on the East African Rift, a line of tectonic activity where the African Plate meets the Indian Plate, and is threatening to tare Africa apart. This whole region is studded with highly active volcanoes; Nyiragongo at two miles high is tiny in comparison to some of its neighbours. However, it is one of the most dangerous. It is fuelled by a rare Mantle plume, magma from 50 to 80 miles below the crust rising to the surface, creating a huge reservoir just under the crust. The volcano cradles one of the world’s largest lava lakes, over 700 feet across and miles deep; it spits lava 100 feet into the air, with temperatures over 980°C and gasses rising off the surface creating a dense smog, with scientists requiring gas masks to peer over the edge of the rim to the orange sea below.

Two lava flows have occurred recently, in 1977 and 2002, the claiming the lives of hundreds of people, despite the flow solidifying before it reached the main city. 13 million cubic meters of lava, burying two story houses in molten rock, causing 350,000 people to flee. This is however just a fraction of the damage that scientists estimate that this volcano could inflict on the huge human population of the area, with no warning system and lava that has flowed at over 60 miles per hour, the fastest ever observed, and Lake Kivu trapping much of the population in the city. However, the lake also hides a dangerous and sinister secret. It has a very large level of dissolved carbon dioxide in its murky waters, ready to be shaken out of the lake, and blanket the area in a suffocating cloud of gas. Lake Nyos held similar levels of CO2 before an earthquake released the toxic cloud, which silently cascaded down the sides of the lake, covering local villages, resulting in the deaths of 1700 people in the night. This has not yet happened in Goma, but every day that passes sees more CO2 bubble through the cracks beneath the lake, dissolve and add to that threat. Any decent sized eruption from the volcano to the east of the city will with the associated earthquakes release the gas from the west, trapping the people between the gas and the lava, killing thousands of unsuspecting citizens. The people who arrive at the edge of the city every day, hoping to restart their shattered lives do not realise the danger. People who were around at the time of the last lava flow, a mere warning of what is possible, say that they cannot move away. “Many have died” says Ignace Madingo, a secretary who lives in the path of the lava, and was forced to flee with his family on the previous two occasions. “The lava turned them into stones… We know the mountain will erupt again. Lava will come. Our houses will burn”. Despite this, he is unable to move. His livelihood is too important, with many of the other people in the city and the country living on the streets in poverty. His land is just jagged rock, his home a shack in the direct path of boiling rock, as is true of many of the city’s residents. There is no hope for these people’s survival without adequate warning; like at Pompeii nearly 2000 years ago, thousands will perish at the hands of a volcanic eruption.

To try to prevent this, in early 2012, a small team of scientists entered the volcano to monitor the gasses and lava levels within. The type and levels of gas released by the volcano can tell the scientists of rising plumes of high pressure magma far below the surface, warning of an impending eruption. Seismographs are being flown into the area to monitor any shift in the crust that may be caused by growing pressure in the magma;and different chemical compositions of lava are being analysed, compared with older samples from the slopes of the volcano can tell of changes deep below the crust, and so warn of an impending volcanic event. These steps are crucial if the lives of the local people are to be saved, but more needs to be done. A warning system for the locals must be set up, as well as evacuation plans and education of the local people. However, this all costs money that the DRC does not have. The UN is also reluctant to pledge funds due to the tumultuous economic times, leaving the people of this region of Africa vulnerable. These people are being left in a dangerous situation due to the local political differences that have resulted in war and their migration, and the economic context in which they live. We need to try and overcome these barriers to help these people. The Romans in the bay of Naples had no hope of escape due to a lack of prediction and protection; we need to prevent the same happening to the people of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Steps must be taken to prevent Goma being buried; so that it stays a bright, vibrant and thriving city, rather than a historic tourist attraction, a new Pompeii, a shadow of the past.

Contributed by Chris Cockerill

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