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Mount Nyiragongo

Mount Nyiragongo

It’s beautiful, but it’s also a troubling reminder of a 14-year-old catastrophe.

The last time the volcano erupted — in 2002 — it killed 147 people and forced 400,000 people to flee the nearby city of Goma.

The eruption effectively split Goma in two, destroying a third of the city. Lava even covered about 80 percent of the airstrips at Goma International Airport, making it almost impossible to evacuate people or get outside aid to survivors.

Just like back in 2002, the threat facing Goma today isn’t an explosion, but a fast-moving river of lava that flows out of cracks on the side of the mountain.

Nyiragongo is much more like the volcanoes in Hawaii. [They are] very fluid, very fast-moving and very hot lava.”

This newest vent, the one that just opened up, faces Goma. Just like they did in 2002.

Goma sits right on the shore of Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes. The lake straddles the border between the DRC and Rwanda, and holds massive amounts of methane and dissolved carbon dioxide because of its proximity to volcanic vents, among other reasons.

The shores of Laku Kivu are packed with about 2 million people. And with much of the infrastructure destroyed by years of a civil war and little to no upkeep, many experts agree that it would be impossible to evacuate them quickly.

Back in 2002, lava streamed into Lake Kivu for several days. The lake didn’t explode that time, but it’s unlikely that people living on the shore will be that lucky again if lava reaches the lake again.

Hiking the Mountain

You start hiking in the morning, and you hike for five to six hours, depending on your strength. Sometimes I take people who need like eight, nine hours. You hike and you get on top. You get a nice view before it gets dark, and then you get an amazing view of the lava … then you sleep up there in little tents. You camp up there, and then in the morning at 5 or 6 o’clock you wake up and you get a last view. Then you hike down which is another five to six hours.”

A question is what if the eruption happens while you’re on the hike. The nature of the eruption, people are likely safer on top of the volcano than everyone else living at the bottom.

Plus, it’s nearly impossible to tell when the volcano could erupt.

And in the meantime, the team in Virunga National Park — where the volcano is located — is encouraging people to come and see the “spectacular show of new activity.”