A massive volcanic eruption in Mount Nyiragongo followed by hundreds of earthquakes in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has triggered mass evacuations, forcing thousands to leave their homes behind. The United Nations fears that this volcanic eruption could be worse than the deadliest surge of 1977, which killed over 600 people. But a more sinister threat lurking beneath the country’s water body Lake Kivu is worrying the government and scientists.

Mount Nyiragongo, Goma

Goma, one of the world’s most vulnerable cities, monitors by the largest UN peacekeeping operation, has been an epicenter of restless conflicts and natural calamities for years. Poor infrastructure and gravel pathways vividly describe the city’s defencelessness to any immediate danger.

Goma is also believed to be one of the most dangerous places to live on earth in natural disasters. This city of DR Congo spread across a 75.72 km2 area along with 2 million human population homes one of the world’s most enormous volcanic mountains, Mount Nyiragongo. The volcanic eruption less than two decades ago is still fresh in the local’s memories. The 2002 eruption claimed more than 250 lives, left one-third of the city razed and over 120,000 homeless.

The current volcanic eruption in Mount Nyiragongo started in the late hours of the afternoon last Saturday. With the frantic scene of people crowding the road, hurdling to a safe zone, most assumed that the fire raged due to a forest fire. But soon, the fiery glow which lit up the sky cleared everyone’s speculation, one of the two active volcanoes has erupted, and the lava is traveling to burn the locale to ashes.

With no prior evacuation orders from officials and unreliable information shared over WhatsApp, the city located on the edge of Lake Kivu and Rwanda collapsed into chaos. As the sky turned red and air filled with poisonous gases, government-ordered mass evacuation of a significant section of Goma. According to the UN, by now, 670,000 inhabitants have been evacuated from 10 districts.

Lake Kivu: The Lurking Fear of Limnic Eruption

The scientists are now claiming that the flow of the magma trapped beneath Mount Nyiragongo has turned toward Lake Kivu, creating high chances of Limnic eruption at the Lake that could cause catastrophic risks to Goma. In Limnic Eruption, deadly gases like methane and carbon dioxide would leak into the river through volcanic vents at the deep river bed. The resulting rise in the water temperature would let these lethal gases escape from the river surface into the air, contaminating the region with toxic gases.

A Limnic eruption that occurred in 1986 in Lake Nyos created a cloud of CO2 which asphyxiated over 1800 people residing in the nearby villages. Magma, simmering beneath the town around Lake Kivu, is far more petrifying because of the Lake’s size; Lake Nyos is just 1.58 sq. km, whereas Lake Kivu is 2,700 sq. km in length and almost twice as deep. Furthermore, the population near the Lake is vast, and evacuation of this large population would be a challenging task of its own.

Though it is tough to predict when or if the Limnic eruption happens, scientists believe that Lake Kivu contains an estimate of 300 cubic km of CO2, an invisible, orderly, and denser gas. Dr. Andrew, a renowned volcanologist, said to the BBC, “If there was a big underwater volcanic explosion, it could cause an eruption of all this gas that would flood the urbanised shores of Lake Kivu, which would be an incredibly dangerous thing to happen.”

Mount Nyiragongo: What Will Happen Next?

According to Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG), the Limnic eruption is one of three probable outcomes due to the Mount Nyiragongo volcanic outburst. Another eruption from the 3500m-high volcanic mountain and a methane release are the two other possibilities.

Goma, a lively city, has turned into a ghost town in just a week. The flood of displaced people in Sake is overwhelming the disaster management team. Jens Laerke, a UN spokesperson, said in a Friday briefing, “Forty-four per cent of the 5 million internally displaced persons in the DRC are in North Kivu, where also 33 per cent of the population is severely food insecure”. Hundreds of fled people are spending their nights in schools and churches. Aid workers are supplying food, water, and other essentials. More than 100 children have separated from their family, amidst the fleeing crowd.

UN has announced to temporarily relocated half of its aid workers, 250 non-essential staff, and 1500 dependants to Bukusu for assistance, where over 10,000 displaced people have taken refuge. But still, there is a section of people who are not yet ready to leave their homes behind. Aline Uramahoro, a beer store owner, says, “will stay in the city. I know that I’m in imminent danger, but I don’t have a choice”.