Nature Blog Network Future Earth: Is the earth moving?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is the earth moving?

A tremor of concern and excitment shimmied along my spine with the prospect of an imminent erruption where my heart still lies in eastern DRC. This is not the Heart of Darkness for me - it is the land of bubbling friendship, glistening turquoise lakes and staggering sunsets. The area around and between the romantically-sounding Nyamulagira and Nyiragongo volcanoes sees a breakthrough erruption every few years. Nyiragongo is like an upturned bucket full of a particularly fluid melt - when it breaks through the bucket empties rapidly and previous erruptions have devastated the lakeside town of Goma.

Signs of pending erruption? Of course the wildlife on the flanks of the volcano picks up the early warnings and starts to move - but with this fast-flowing lava, not quite early enough to act as the miners' canary. There are chimps in the forested older lava aroud Tongo (separated from the mountain gorillas across the road in the older, dormant Virunga volcano range straddling the borders between Rwanda, DRC and Uganda). There are local stories of chimps screaming and rushing for safety before previous erruptions. And what do the humans do? Those with knowledge and limited options sensibly prepare for flight. Those competing for the Darwin award pack a tent and prepare to hike up to see the erruption at close quarters.

"My" erruption happened around my birthday and was a memorable treat. The hike up to near the venting summit was exhausting and we pitched our tents on unforgiving old lava, but when little blobs of the molten stuff started burning holes in the canvas during the night we somehow found the energy to move. We were not alone - and with other happy, foolish, volcanic voyeurs
we gathered together to search - fruitlessly - for the couple that had disappeared as aerial detritus descended on the area destroying vegetation and building up a lethal substrate. They emerged from the forest 2 days later, miles away, dehydrated and facing a search/recovery bill. The sights however were staggering and the earth certainly moved for me - the colours, the force, the uncontrollable beauty. But when my boots started to melt I turned tail for Goma and a dip in lake Kivu.

So how imminent is imminent? An image of the monitoring station outside my house on the road out of Goma comes to mind. A monitoring station posing as a decaying behive surrounded by a hopeful fence that was regularly raided by local impoverished opportunists for the wire of which it was constructed. Fairly regularly its keeper would wobble up the lava road on his Japanese-funded bicycle and change the paper on the seisomograph, carrying the precious recordings back for careful analysis in mission control. Mission control had a dusty desk, an open bottle of Fanta, a kettle in the corner with a circular net carefully placed over the open tin of condensed milk sustaining the recorder and occasional visitors. Presumably the 2009 equivalent is digital and streamlined - someone please send me an update. Meanwhile, I leave you with this (accurate!) gem:

"The eruption could be tomorrow, or the day after — or at any other time," said Dieudonne Wafula, the head of Goma's Volcanological Observatory.

So, watch and wait then.

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