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World Volcanologists take the pulse of DR Congo's temperamental volcano

16:16  14 june  2021
16:16  14 june  2021 Source:   afp.com

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The trek up Mount Nyiragongo takes you through fog, wind and ash to a crater -- the brooding mouth from which Africa's most active volcano last month spewed rivers of lava and forced the evacuation of a city.

a group of clouds in the sky with a mountain in the background: On the edge: The crater of Mount Nyiragongo © ALEXIS HUGUET On the edge: The crater of Mount Nyiragongo

Four experts from DR Congo's Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO) took the trail last week to get a closer look at Nyiragongo, which briefly flared into life on May 22.

The five-hour ascent on Friday, along a path previously used by tourists, took the team to an altitude of 3,470 metres (11,384), transiting from tropical warmth and lush vegetation to grey, cold stoney slopes where nothing grows.

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a man riding on top of a mountain: Volcanologists clean solar panels that help to power their monitoring station on Nyiragongo © ALEXIS HUGUET Volcanologists clean solar panels that help to power their monitoring station on Nyiragongo

The visitors gained a dizzying view of the crater, which emits a kind of low-frequency growl, punctuated by explosions. At night residues of glowing lava can be seen at the bottom of its crater.

Equipped with drones and camera systems, the team wanted to measure landslips and monitor the volcano for a potential collapse of the crater, said Christopher Horsley, a technical assistant at the OVG said.

a group of people standing in a military uniform: Escort: Rangers from the Virunga National Park provide protection © ALEXIS HUGUET Escort: Rangers from the Virunga National Park provide protection

"We are seeking cracks that opened during the eruption," said Bonheur Rugain, a specialist.

On social media, rumours have spread that Nyiragongo is now dormant -- an idea that the scientists are eager to dispel.

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Nyiragongo, a strato-volcano nearly 3,500 metres high, straddles the East African Rift tectonic divide. Just 14 kilometres (nine miles) away lies its sister Nyamuragira, whose red glow also shows that it is dangerously active.

- Buried homes -

a group of people standing next to a tree: Congolese volcanologists, helped by porters, cooks and armed rangers from the Virunga National Park, climb the slopes of Mount Nyiragongo. The ascent took five hours © ALEXIS HUGUET Congolese volcanologists, helped by porters, cooks and armed rangers from the Virunga National Park, climb the slopes of Mount Nyiragongo. The ascent took five hours

The team, which also included seven porters and two cooks as well as armed guards, spent the night in small visitors' huts on the edge of the crater. Ash covered the mattresses. The temperature dropped to as low as 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind was strong.

a person standing on a rock: Fracture: A ranger walks past a crack in the volcano's side © ALEXIS HUGUET Fracture: A ranger walks past a crack in the volcano's side

Nyiragongo's eruption on May 22-23 spewed out lava that buried homes in its wake, stopping just short of the northern outskirts of Goma, a city of some 600,000 people.

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In the following days, mighty tremors shook the city, and scientists feared a rare but potentially catastrophic event -- a "limnic eruption" under nearby Lake Kivu that would send carbon dioxide gas, dissolved in the depths of the water, up to the surface and suffocate everyone in the vicinity.

a group of people standing on top of a mountain: The big view: How it looks from from the top of Mount Nyiragongo © ALEXIS HUGUET The big view: How it looks from from the top of Mount Nyiragongo

The authorities ordered the evacuation of 400,000 people as a precaution. The residents have now largely returned after seismic activity fell back.

a group of people standing on top of a mountain: The team spent the night in small visitors' huts before descending. Tourists access to the volcano has been banned since the May 22-23 eruption © ALEXIS HUGUET The team spent the night in small visitors' huts before descending. Tourists access to the volcano has been banned since the May 22-23 eruption

Thirty-two people died from lava burns or asphyxiation, and two more died in accidents during the exodus.

In the previous major eruption in 2002, around 100 people died and swathes of eastern Goma were destroyed.

Nyiragongo's deadliest eruption, in 1977, claimed more than 600 lives.

Friday's overnight stay marked the second monitoring expedition to the volcano since the May 22-23 event. Guards from the nearby Vigunga National Park provided protection, in an area notorious for armed groups.

"Before the eruption, it was tough because we didn't have enough money" to organise the trips, said Celestin Kasereka Mahinda, the OVG's scientific director.

"We used to go irregularly, about once a month."

ah-st/ri/pvh

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