Friday, January 8, 2010

Nyamulagira Update

There was a briefing yesterday at OCHA concerning the continuing eruption of Nyamulagira. Two vulcanologists were present to give their (sometimes contradicting) opinions.

I was not actually able to attend the meeting (the joys of reformatting budgets got in the way!) but colleagues attended, and here is what they reported back (translated from the French, with some of my own comments added in):

For the last two days (now, presumably, three days; the meeting was yesterday) the speed of the lava flow has slowed considerably. When it first erupted, the lava moved at speeds reaching 2 km per day; now, it is only moving at 200-300 meters per day. Partially, this can be explained because the flow has reached a much flatter surface. It is no longer coursing downhill. Moreover, rather than being only 15 meters wide, as it was in the first few days, it is now nearly 200 meters wide. This news is greeted with much relief. While people’s homes were never in danger, a large, important road (along the Gummed/Sake ax) is in the path of the lava. Now it appears that the lava will not be able to reach the road for another 2 to 4 weeks.

This all said, the activity level of the volcano does remain intense. Fountains of lava spewing forth from Nyamulagira have reached heights of more than 50 meters in the last several days. The vulcanologists posited that this high level of activity will continue for several more weeks or months.

One thing that both scientists agreed on (luckily, as it is probably the thing that most terrifies those of us with active imaginations): The “degasification” of Lake Kivu remains very unlikely. To “rock” the gas saturation point, which lies in the depths of the deep, deep lake, a very violent phenomenon would need to occur. Even in the 2002 eruption of Nyragongo, marked by an earthquake of magnitude six and lava that flowed into the lake for several days, the gases did not bubble up to suffocate the population. (Yay!)

The effects of this eruption on the population of Goma and its surrounding areas remain limited. Dominant winds are blowing westward, and people who live in Sake, who are drinking contaminated rainwater, are becoming ill. Spring waters (underground waters) are so far untouched. Surface waters are only slightly contaminated. (Eventually, surface waters may be more contaminated.)

Ashes are not toxic; fruits and vegetables touched by ashes need only be thoroughly washed. However, the presence of ash in pastures is harmful to cattle because of a phenomenon called “PelĂ©'s Hair” where the ashes crystallize on leaves and can affect the digestive system of animals if eaten.

Conclusion: The situation is not currently alarming. However, it is a volcano. Things can change, and quickly, and with little warning. Measuring instruments only caught wind of troubles within the ground 8 hours before the beginning of this eruption. Happily, researchers, general scientists, and vulcanologists are currently pouring into town, conducting in-depth studies and monitoring the situation.


(Oh yeah and PS there is now a spot for comments on this blog, if you so desire.)


Anonymous said...

dear rachel,these scientists have made a beautiful documentary on volcano.they receive a lot of funding and had made claims to give adequate advance warning.but i dont think they are worth funding they are spending large amount of un money on flights everyday,taking pics and selling to news channels.

Rachel said...

Dear Anonymous:

I am hardly an expert, but it is my understanding that one documentary on a volcano is not sufficient. The volcano needs to be continuously monitored. Even if the local population is only given eight hours of warning before an eruption, those eight hours can mean a great deal of difference.

Thank you for your comment.


Anonymous said...

i think i was not able to project my point correctly.what i was saying is that the documentary made by these people was all crap.even after spending so much of money i dont think there was any forewarning of even 30 what is being done by these guys can be done by any tom dick and harry.see from heli where lava is why to waste so much of money on these guys

Rachel said...

I appreciate your frustration but I have to continue to disagree. As I understand it, vulcanology (like neurology, and others) is far from an exact science -- we humans are far from understanding it. From this I draw the opposite conclusion of you -- we must encourage scientists to continue to study it. Just because something has not been done well in the past does not mean that one should stop attempting it -- especially if that something is potentially life-saving for the 800,000 persons who live here in Goma. Hopefully in two or ten or twenty years, when Nyriagongo does erupt again, the scientists will know more, in part from studying Nyamulagira now.

Perhaps what you are suggesting is that the funds meant to go towards scientific study are being mismanaged -- as to that, I have no knowledge or idea.

Alain R. said...

Hi all,
I like your (both) comments on this Nyamulagira update. I live in the region. Something crosses my mind as I read your observations on how/why money is being spent by scientist on the eruption "show"... I think that, assuming this money is being spent for show/pics to sell to news channels, it is still more worth and useful for the local population that the money that is being spent by warlords and rebels to buy/sell arms and ore...
And who knows what rebellion would these scientist be involved in if they were not being kept busy with the volcano?...
Food for thoughts?
Good luck,
Alain R.

Anonymous said...

i am sorry if i have started a discussion in a wrong direction,but this money is paid by international community and scientists are also not locals.The issue i was trying to get at was lack of accountability.these people had claimed to give 3 months early warning in any case.anyway no point crying over what is over.may e i can contribute some good pics of congo if u are keen,for ur blog.

Rachel said...

I think what my friend Alain may have meant is that with scientists flowing into the area, local businesses (hotels, grocery stores, etc) will get money. Like happens, at the very least, with tourists.

However, honestly, as I understand it, it is simply not possible with our (collective human) level of understanding of volcanoes to give three months warning -- it's like that all over the world! Same in the 1980s in the USA when Mt St Helen erupted & killed many. That is why I think it is so important that studies continue -- and it is a nice side effect that the studies happening here will pump some money into the local economy -- hopefully.

But you are of course right about the need for accountability and transparency in the studies.

Thank you for the offer of photos. I will not be using them here -- I just use this blog for my own thoughts and photos -- but I would love to see them if you have a link to them.