Cradling one of the world's largest and least studied lava lakes—more than 700 feet across and possibly miles deep—Nyiragongo has twice sent molten rock racing toward residents of Goma.
Cradling one of the world's largest and least studied lava lakes—more than 700 feet across and possibly miles deep—Nyiragongo has twice sent molten rock racing toward residents of Goma.

The Volcano Next Door

Scientists descend to a fiery lava lake to protect a Congolese city in its path.

When? This is the question that has brought two of the world's leading volcano scientists to the center of Africa; it's the question that haunts a team of Congolese seismologists; it's the question that may determine the fate of close to one million people. When will Nyiragongo erupt?

Nyiragongo is a two-mile-high volcano towering over the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—one of the most active volcanoes on the planet and also one of the least studied. The chief reason for the lack of research is that for the past 20 years the eastern DRC has seen nearly constant warfare, including a spillover of the massacres in neighboring Rwanda. One of the largest United Nations forces in the world, some 20,000 troops, currently maintains a fragile, and often broken, peace.

At the base of the volcano sprawls the city of Goma, growing by the day as villagers from the countryside seek refuge from rebel and government forces. An estimated million people are now crammed into Goma. Twice in recent years Nyiragongo's eruptions have sent molten rock flowing toward the city. In 1977 lava raced down the mountain at more than 60 miles an hour, the fastest ever observed. Several hundred people died, even though the flow had hardened before it reached the main part of the city. In 2002 the volcano shot more than 15 million cubic yards of lava into downtown Goma, destroying 14,000 homes, burying buildings to the top of the first floor, and forcing 350,000 citizens to flee. Both eruptions were mere grumbles, though, compared with the fury Nyiragongo is thought capable of unleashing.

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