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NYAMURAGIRA VOLCANO (DR CONGO): NEW LAVA LAKE

For the first time in 75 years, a new lava lake appeared on some of Africas most active
stratovolcanoes: Mount Nyamuragira in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The neighbouring
volcanoes of Nyamugira and Nyiragongo are both part of the Virunga volcanic chain in the East
African Rift, situated along DR Congo's border with Rwanda. They are famous as two of the few
volcanoes on Earth that have sustained lava lakes for several decades. The previous lava lake at
Nyamuragira emptied in 1938 as its lava poured out of the summit and flowed more than 30
kilometres down to Lake Kivu. The new lava lake seems to have formed at the bottom of the 500
m deep crater that was left behind by this 1938 lava flood.
Nyamuragiras last eruption started in November 2011 and ended in March 2012 by the
partial emptying of the magma chamber through the effusion of large lava flows. This eventually
resulted in the collapse of the pit crater, an event after which the magma is likely forced to follow
a new route higher up to the volcanos summit. Such reconstruction of the volcanos plumbing
system with transport of magma higher in the volcanos cone could trigger the formation of a
lava lake. Nyamuragiras past eruptions all seem to follow a typical eruptive cycle of lava being
progressively emitted from the volcanos base to its summit, ending in the formation of a lava
lake.
But when exactly did this lava lake form?
Robin Campion, volcanologist at the Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico in Mexico
City, has been monitoring the emission of sulphur dioxide gas in Nyamuragiras surroundings
during and after the most recent 2012 eruption. As expected, SO2 emissions were very high
throughout the volcanos last eruption. After the pit crater collapse that marks the end of this
eruption, however, sulphur dioxide levels remained high something Campion could only explain
by the formation of a lava lake. He published his findings in the November 7 issue of the Journal
of Geophysical Research Letters.
Campions suggestion of an early-formed lava lake seems supported hotter-than-usual
temperatures picked up by sattelites above Nyamuragira in April and late Juneand interpreted by
NASA's Earth Observatory as the presence of a new lava lake. Nyamuragiras summit also started
to glow red at night in April and June, and scientists at the Goma Volcano Observatory (the
Congolese scientific institute in charge of volcano monitoring) detected unusual earthquake
swarms that are typical of molten rock (magma) moving underground during these months.
Benoit Smets, a volcanologist at the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology in
Luxembourg. is however not convinced that the Nyamuragira lava lake formed that long ago.
Last July, United Nations peacekeepers dropped Smets and an international group of scientists off
at the volcanos summit by helicopter, to check on the crater. Their October 21 report in Eos, the
weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union, describes observations of lava fountains
but no sight of a lava lake.
This disagreement reflects both science-in-progress (varying scientific monitoring methods
might lead to different interpretations) and the difficulty of working in the DR Congo (instruments
cant be left in the field for safety reasons and dozens of armed groups continue to fight in the
area). The debate whether or not there is a lava lake at Nyamuragira was finally settled when on

the 6th of November a helicopter survey of the Goma Volcano Observatory reported visual
confirmation of an active lava lake.
Likely evolution of this volcanic activity
Benoit Smets describes the present volcanic activity at Nyamuragira as a very small,
bubbling lava lake. And although the churning lava seems to come and go, scientists think
within a few years to decades the volcano may spawn a long-lived lava lake similar to the one at
neighbouring Nyiragongo volcano.
Both Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo can show volcanic activity that threatens nearby towns
such as Sake and Goma. The January 2002 eruption of Nyiragongo, for example, destroyed large
parts of Goma and left 200,000 people homeless. Nyiragongos closer proximity to local
communities does, however, make it more of a hazard than Nyamuragira which is surrounded by
a national park. Nyamuragiras immediate threat is therefore not so much lava flows or volcanic
debris but acid rain from its volcanic gas which can corrode roofs, destroy crops and affect
human health.