Sims is 50 years old, an avid rock climber and former professional mountain guide. He doesn't like cities; he's allergic to crowds. He dresses as if life were one long camping trip. A professor at the University of Wyoming, he lives in Laramie with his wife and two young children. He hasn't owned a TV set in 25 years. Volcano science has never been a safe occupation—more than 20 scientists have died on volcanoes in the past 30 years. Sims carries a scar on his right arm from Sicily's Mount Etna, where his shirt melted into his skin. He's even-tempered and analytical and seemingly never off duty. He once wrote a paper on a restaurant tablecloth, scribbling until 3 a.m. Then he took the tablecloth home.
By Michael Finkel
When? This is the question that has brought two of the world's leading volcano scientists to the center of Africa; it's the question that haunts a team of Congolese seismologists; it's the question that may determine the fate of close to one million people. When will Nyiragongo erupt?
Nyiragongo is a two-mile-high volcano towering over the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—one of the most active volcanoes on the planet and also one of the least studied. The chief reason for the lack of research is that for the past 20 years the eastern DRC has seen nearly constant warfare, including a spillover of the massacres in neighboring Rwanda. One of the largest United Nations forces in the world, some 20,000 troops, currently maintains a fragile, and often 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 government forces. An estimated million people are now crammed into Goma. Twice in recent years Nyiragongo's eruptions have sent molten rock flowing 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 flow had hardened before 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 first floor, and forcing 350,000 citizens to flee. 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 scientific community's attention on Nyiragongo. According 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. Their 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. They hoped to transform the question of when into the beginnings of an answer.
This story, photos and more can be found in the April 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now! To view these images and more, visit The Volcano Next Door photo gallery.
Learn more about the UW Department of Geology and Geophysics.