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Seismic rumbling foretold Congo eruption


Scientists received several day’s warning of abnormal seismic activity.

Evacuees leaving Goma after the lava flows.
© AP

Mount Nyiragongo in eastern Congo killed dozens in its biggest-ever eruption.
© Nature

Two seismological stations on Mount Nyiragongo in eastern Congo gave several days’ advance warning of the volcano’s possible eruption, scientists working in the area say.

But the lack of a functioning government in the war-torn region may have prevented the evacuation of the nearby city of Goma, where 45 were confirmed dead and an existing humanitarian crisis was worsened by the eruption.

For the past decade, a Japanese team has sought to maintain a seismic network at the volcano. In 1994, five monitoring units were donated by the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) to form the Goma Volcano Observatory.

But fighting in the area and looting of equipment by armed militia camped on the volcano itself regularly forced volcanologists to flee, according to Jacques Durieux, director of the Active Volcanoes Study Group in Lyon, France, who last visited Mount Nyiragongo with VDAP scientists in 1994.

According to the VDAP, only two monitoring stations were working properly before the eruption. VDAP scientists nevertheless received a warning on 12 January - five days before the first eruption - of the possibility of "abnormal seismic activity".

Durieux, who spoke with Congolese volcanologists on the day of the eruption, says that efforts were made to raise the alarm, but the lack of governance in Goma makes it unlikely that any plan to evacuate the city could have been implemented. Local volcanologists "have no staff and no pay", says Hawaii-based volcano consultant Jack Lockwood, who has accompanied Durieux on previous trips to Mount Nyiragongo.

Durieux now wants to improve the observation of Mount Nyiragongo and its neighbour, Mount Nyamuragira, some 14 km away, which is also active. But he says that "we can’t expect developing countries to pay".

Mount Nyiragongo last erupted in 1977, killing around 500 people, and threatened to do so again in June 1994, when some 800,000 refugees from Rwanda’s civil war were camped on its slopes. Last week’s eruption was the largest in the volcano’s history, according to geological evidence.

Predicting future eruptions of an active volcano such as Nyiragongo will require a far more elaborate monitoring system than the two stations currently in place, say VDAP scientists. The VDAP and other agencies have provided more comprehensive monitoring of volcanoes elsewhere in the developing world, but such monitoring is only carried out at the request of the host government. With the province of North Kivu, where Goma is situated, controlled by Rwandan-backed rebels, such a request was not forthcoming from the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kinshasa, say VDAP officials.

TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service

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