Death toll expected to rise considerably, more than 500 homes destroyed after eruption at Mount Nyiragongo, DR Congo

Death toll expected to rise considerably, more than 500 homes destroyed after eruption at Mount Nyiragongo, DR Congo

More scary details are coming to light two days after the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

  • While the main lava flow appears to have stopped in the district of Buhene, it affected 17 villages, destroyed more than 500 homes, left 15 confirmed fatalities and many missing. 
  • The flow was about 9 m (30 feet) high in some places and about 800 m (2 600 feet) wide.
  • Authorities warn that the danger is not over as seismic activity in the area continues, rising the probability of new lava flows.

According to figures released on May 23, at least 15 people have been killed, including 9 in traffic accidents as panicked residents tried to evacuate the city of Goma and its suburbs. The total population in this area exceeds 2 million as more than 1.5 million people moved near the volcano over the past 20 years.

On May 24, 7 more people died from inhaling toxic gas while walking across a wide expanse of the cooling lava, bringing the number of casualties to 22. 

The number of casualties rose to 32 on May 25.

Image credit: Copernicus EU/Sentinel-2,  Platform Adam, Antonio Vecoli

Other casualties were four people who tried to escape Munzenze prison and two who were burned to death, government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said in a statement.

Unfortunately, the death toll is expected to rise considerably as many people are still missing, including 170 children. 150 people have reportedly lost contact with their families, according to UNICEF.

At this time, the main lava flow has stopped in the district of Buhene, a few hundred meters away from the city limit, where more than 500 homes and large buildings were buried. 

A separate lava flow that headed east over unpopulated terrain towards Rwanda also appeared to have stopped.

In total, lava flows affected 17 villages, three health centers, and a primary school, a government spokesperson said. In addition, a water pipeline and Goma's main electricity supply line were destroyed.

Contrary to previous reports, Goma airport is still untouched.

The main lava flow was about 9 m (30 feet) high in some places and 800 m (2 600 feet) wide.

While lava flows seem to have stopped, authorities warn that the danger is not over as seismic activity in the area continues, rising the probability of new lava flows.

People are advised to remain vigilant, avoid non-essential travel, and follow official directions.

Events leading up to Saturday's eruption

Nyiragongo is monitored by Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG) who's head warned last year that the volcano's lava lake is filling up quickly. Unfortunately, the World Bank has cut funding to the observatory in 2020 amid accusations of corruption. 

In April 2020, Congo's Office for Good Governance and the Fight against Corruption (OBLC) opened an investigation, seizing bank records and invoices from OVG.

However, authorities suspended the investigation two weeks later and it remains incomplete, sources at OBLC told Reuters in March 2021.

With this, OVG was left struggling to pay even basic checks like the Internet to run remote sensors and fuel for field trips to manually download the data on memory cards.

All this was happening during activity that resembled those before catastrophic eruptions of 1977 and 2002.

Internet was restored in April 2021 thanks to funding from a U.S. partner, OVG's scientific director Celestin Kasereka Mahinda told local Radio Okapi on Sunday, May 23, but it was already too late.

"As soon as the internet was restored, we had started recording the warning signals, but since we did not have previous data, we thought it was the start of volcanic activity. Hence this surprise," Mahinda said.

Another unfortunate mismanagement issue is the expansion of the city of Goma towards the volcano. In the past 20 years, the population there tripled to around 1.5 million, making Nyiragongo one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

Previous eruptions

On January 10, 1977, Nyiragongo's crater walls fractured, and the lava lake drained down the slopes in less than an hour.(1)

With speeds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph) on the upper slopes, lava quickly overwhelmed nearby villages, killing at least 70 people.

Another major eruption of the volcano began on January 17, 2002, after several months of increased seismic and fumarolic activity.

A 13 km (8 miles) fissure opened in the southern flank of the volcano on that day, spreading in a few hours from 2 800 m to 1 550 m (9 186 - 5 085 feet) elevation and reaching the outskirts of the city of Goma, killing 250 people and making 120 000 homeless.

Geological summary

One of Africa's most notable volcanoes, Nyiragongo contained a lava lake in its deep summit crater that was active for half a century before draining catastrophically through its outer flanks in 1977.

In contrast to the low profile of its neighboring shield volcano, Nyamuragira, 3 470 m (11 384 feet) high Nyiragongo displays the steep slopes of a stratovolcano.

Benches in the steep-walled, 1.2 km (1.9 miles) wide summit crater mark levels of former lava lakes, which have been observed since the late-19th century.

Two older stratovolcanoes, Baruta and Shaheru, are partially overlapped by Nyiragongo on the north and south.

About 100 parasitic cones are located primarily along radial fissures south of Shaheru, east of the summit, and along a NE-SW zone extending as far as Lake Kivu.

Many cones are buried by voluminous lava flows that extend long distances down the flanks, which is characterized by the eruption of foiditic rocks.

The extremely fluid 1977 lava flows caused many fatalities, as did lava flows that inundated portions of the major city of Goma in January 2002. (GVP)

Featured image credit: Sky News (stillshot)

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