National Geographic : 2011 Apr
Traders ferry logs and charcoal 12 miles from the forests around Nyiragongo to Goma, which continues to swell with refugees fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo's war-torn east. The plume rising from the mountain reminds residents of yet another threat: eruption. now crammed into Goma. Twice in recent years Nyiragongo's eruptions have sent molten rock owing toward the city. In 1977 lava raced down the mountain at more than 60 miles an hour, the fastest ever observed. Several hundred people died, even though the ow had hardened be- fore it reached the main part of the city. In 2002 the volcano shot more than 15 million cubic yards of lava into downtown Goma, destroying 14,000 homes, burying buildings to the top of the rst oor, and forcing 350,000 citizens to ee. Both eruptions were mere grumbles, though, compared with the fury Nyiragongo is thought capable of unleashing. Part of Dario Tedesco's job is to envision that possibility. For much of the past 15 years, with funding from the European Union, the Italian volcanologist has struggled to focus the scienti c community's attention on Nyiragongo. Accord- ing to Tedesco, there is no question the volcano will erupt again, potentially transforming Goma into a modern Pompeii. "Goma," he says, "is the most dangerous city in the world." Last July, Tedesco headed to Nyiragongo with U.S. volcanologist Ken Sims, a team of younger scientists, and a support crew, including six Kalashnikov-toting guards. eir three-week mission was akin to that of a doctor giving a patient a long-overdue physical exam. They wanted to take the measure of the mountain, to study its rocks and sample its gases, to decipher its methods and moods. ey hoped to trans- form the question of when into the beginnings of an answer. REACHING THE SUMMIT rim of Nyiragongo was straightforward: Sims and Tedesco followed the lava. e recent eruptions hadn't been classic, spouting-out-the-top types, so-called Plinian eruptions, but rather fissure eruptions, like bursting pipes. In 2002 the rupture happened a few hundred feet below the 11,385-foot peak. research is that for the past 20 years the eastern DRC has seen nearly constant warfare, includ- ing a spillover of the massacres in neighboring Rwanda. One of the largest United Nations forc- es in the world, some 20,000 troops, currently maintains a fragile, and o en 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 govern- ment forces. An estimated million people are Michael Finkel last wrote about the Hadza of Tanzania. Carsten Peter's photos of giant cave passages in Vietnam appeared in our January issue.