Climbing Into Volcanoes, Collecting Rocks—and Hopefully Saving Lives

Figure 1: Nyiragongo volcano towering above the city of Goma. Photo by John Catto.
Nyiragongo volcano towering above the city of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo by Jacques Durieux)

Nyiragongo is a spectacular, active stratovolcano (11,385 feet above sea level) that towers over the city of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (4,600 feet above sea level) and hosts the world’s largest lava lake in its summit crater. Its highly unusual lavas are extremely fluid due to having some of the lowest silica levels on the planet, and they are capable of moving with velocities of tens of miles per hour.

Nyiragongo is also a dangerous volcano. It looms just 12 miles from the major population centers of Goma and neighboring Gisenyi, Rwanda. Destructive eruptions in 1977 and 2002 claimed many lives and devastated infrastructure in this war-torn region. With accelerating population growth creating rampant urban sprawl, the next eruption of either a lava flow or explosive “parasitic cone” could create an even more disastrous humanitarian crisis in this region.

Nyiragongo lava lake. (Photo by John Catto)

With an eye toward better understanding volcanic hazards at Nyiragongo volcano and its threat to the cities of Goma and Gisenyi, University of Wyoming PhD student Erin Phillips, fellow mountaineer and photographer John Catto, and I have just been on an expedition to the DRC. In collaboration with scientists at the Observatoire Volcanologique de Goma (OVG) and Dario Tedesco from the University of Napoli in Italy, our explicit goal was to collect samples from Nyiragongo’s lava flows and parasitic cones.

With the right samples in hand, we are now measuring those sample’s isotopes (atoms which serve as little radioactive clocks in the rocks) to provide a time line of past eruptions in order to better understand how often and with what regularity Nyiragongo is erupting. This work will be conducted in my University of Wyoming —> Read More