August 3, 2021

in Goma, volcanologists still on the alert near Nyiragongo

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Residents near houses destroyed by lava deposited by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano on June 7, 2021.

Hats and protective masks screwed onto the head, Rugain Bonheur, Arsène Sadiki and Anicet Birisawa move with caution in the middle of the cracks that crack the crater of the Nyiragongo volcano. The scene takes place in mid-June. The three scientists from the Volcanological Observatory of Goma (OVG) made an ascent on foot of nearly 2,000 meters of vertical drop to come and observe with their own eyes the activity of this dangerous ” neighbour “.

Nyiragongo, located in Virunga National Park, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. On the evening of May 22, it erupted. Gigantic fractures opened on its sides. From these cracks, several million cubic meters of molten rock poured first eastwards, towards neighboring Rwanda, then southwards, on the city of Goma, capital of the province of North Kivu, populated by more than a million and a half inhabitants.

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Estimates made using satellite images speak of nearly 3,000 buildings buried under the slow wave of magma. About 30 people died the same evening and in the days following the eruption. Most of them died of asphyxiation or burned while crossing the hardly cooled lava flows. A month and a half later, the inhabitants returned to Goma but the concern has not disappeared, especially among scientists who complain of a cruel lack of resources.

Vision d’apocalypse

The observation mission carried out in mid-June made it possible to photograph the interior of the crater and to verify the presence of magma on the surface. The Congolese researchers took the opportunity to take temperature readings and put the seismographs back into service. The transfer of their data is powered by solar panels, covered by a thick layer of ash from the eruption.

In this circus of rock, a kilometer and a half in diameter, a vision of the apocalypse has been revealed. Entire sections of the crater collapse on themselves with a low rumble. Columns of greyish dust rise for several hundred meters and hide the sun.

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Christopher Horsley, a young English photographer, came to help the team of volcanologists in collecting images. It is a benchmark for shooting and setting up camps in the heart of erupting craters. “This expedition made it possible to prove that the collapse of part of the crater is in progress, he explains. We are also trying to see if any pressurized lava is back in the volcano. But as long as the crater is still collapsing, we can’t answer that question. “

Anicet Birisawa, from the seismology department, confirms: “There are rumors on social media that say Nyiragongo died out after the eruption. We organized this mission to counter these rumors and show that this is not the case. “

Anticipate a new eruption

In the northern districts of Goma, where part of the homes and shops are still under solidified lava, the OVG recommends that the population stay away from these hot and foul-smelling piles of rocks.

“The question is not whether, but when there will be a new eruption”, specifies Benoît Smets, volcanologist at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. This Belgian institution has been working with the OVG for about fifteen years. “There were movements of magma under the city of Goma, towards the lake. They have stopped, but there is still magma in the “plumbing” of the volcano. What we hope, if the lava rises again to the surface, is that it is for the creation of a new lava lake and not to pour out again in flows ”, details the scientist.

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The hope is above all for volcanologists to be able to anticipate a new eruption when the last has revealed serious dysfunctions in the research center. On June 2, a group of researchers from the OVG sent President Félix Tshisekedi a letter in the form of an indictment, denouncing the fact that “Corruption, embezzlement of agents’ salaries since 2013 (…), the embezzlement of project funds to the tune of millions of dollars (…) are the reasons which made our dear observatory unable to properly accomplish its mission ”.

Benoît Smets confirms that salaries are not paid regularly and adds that “The structural operating costs of the OVG depend almost entirely on international funding”. Which financings have limited durations. The risk, according to the Belgian researcher, is that “If the Congolese government does not put its hand in its pocket, there will be, as in recent months, breaks in the functioning of the Observatory”.

The refuge of several armed groups

A few days later, on June 5, before the Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, the director of the seismology department of the OVG, Georges Mavonga, denounced the same problems of financial management. “As early as April, there were warning signs of an impending eruption but we did not have the means to go and check”, he mentioned.

At the end of April, several meetings were held in which researchers reported earthquakes. Tourists who visited the volcano also testified to a lava lake “At the highest level, as in 2002” – date of the last eruption of Nyiragongo. “Unfortunately, no one could climb the volcano and look for the fractures”, regrets Georges Mavonga.

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In addition to the problems of means, the person in charge points out the situation of insecurity. The slopes of the volcano are the refuge of several armed groups that are rampant in the southern part of the province of North Kivu. In their memorandum addressed to the President of the Republic, the researchers of the OVG complain of having been attacked on several occasions by coupeurs de route and that one of their agents “Still carries a bullet in his body”. They add that two guards of a seismographic station were attacked, “One of whom had been beheaded and the other released after paying a ransom.”

On June 30, President Félix Tshisekedi was to visit the premises of the Goma Volcanological Observatory. Scientists have paused their activities to wait for him. In vain. The president did not come.

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