Deep within a crater at the summit of one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, shrouded by clouds of toxic gas, a bubbling lava lake has sprung into being for the first time in 75 years.
The new lava lake is atop the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Nyamuragira volcano. This young volcano is part of a chain of eight mountains in the Albertine Rift, the Virunga Volcanoes, which line the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Only Nyamuragira and another equally young volcano within this range, Nyiragongo, are active. Together, they account for 40% of all volcanic eruptions in Africa. Twelve years ago, an eruption from Nyiragongo destroyed one third of a nearby city.
At the moment, the newborn lava lake is small but mighty. It’s fed by fountains of fiery lava that can be seen spurting from the crater by aerial observations. Interestingly, the lake seems to come and go at the moment, sometimes vanishing for several hours. But experts say that if the current level of activity continues, it could become a more long-term addition like Nyiragongo’s, which is the largest lava lake in the world.
Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira are unique in the fact that they can host lava lakes for several decades, which only a few others across the globe are known to do. But Nyamuragira’s pool had been empty for the best part of the last century, when its lava spewed from the summit in 1938 and traveled some 18 miles across the landscape.
Scientists weren’t all that surprised when they discovered the new lava lake because a couple of years ago, a violent eruption resulted in the collapse of one of the volcano’s craters. This dramatic event, which caused 200 million cubic meters of lava to dribble down Nyamuragira’s sides, likely opened up new pathways for magma to creep upwards from the underground chamber below.
When precisely this new lake formed is unknown at the moment and has sparked some controversy among scientists. Robin Campion, the author of a recently published paper on the feature, has gathered evidence to suggest that it formed shortly after the crater collapsed back in 2012. As described in Geophysical Research Letters, toxic sulfur dioxide gas emissions did not wane after the eruption. These high values, he tells Live Science, could only be explained by a lava lake.
Volcanologist Benoit Smets, however, disagrees, and thinks that it only formed very recently. That’s because when he and his team visited the volcano back in July this year to photograph the crater, they couldn’t see any evidence for a lake. But Campion has taken a look at the photos and believes that he can see fountains spurting out from a small lake. Furthermore, scientists from the Goma Volcano Observatory observed red glows at nighttime in April and June this year.