By Michael Finkel
Photograph by Carsten Peter
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.
Fig.1The lava at Nyiragongo is made of an alkali-rich volcanic rock; its unusual composition may be a factor in the lava's fluidity.Photo by Carsten Peter/National Geographic
Fig.2 Photographer Carsten Peter tests the thermal suit that Sims used to get close to the lava lake. "It can protect you from the radiant heat, but if you get hit with a lava splatter, the force will likely kill you," he says. For 30 years Peter has explored volcanoes around the world. "Seeing at close range the primal forces that shaped the planet can be hypnotic. You cannot allow yourself to fall under a volcano's spell, especially one as unpredictable as Nyiragongo. That can be a fatal mistake."Photo by Carsten Peter/National Geographic
Fig. 3 With temperatures around 1800 degree F., the lava is wildly erratic. As molten rock meets the air , it cools and forms plates on the lake's surface.Photo by Carsten Peter/National Geographic