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Behind the Scenes

By Ken Sims

Volume 12, Number 3 | May 2011

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Nyiragongo Volcano | Photo by Carsten PeterApproximately 500 meters deep with vertical rotten rock, the Nyiragongo Volcano is a major threat to the city of Goma. Its lava flows have inundated the city, of just under one million people, twice in the past thirty-five years. Another eruption would present a major humanitarian crisis in this war-ravaged region.

I descended the volcano's crater at least 15 times, many of which were to accompany the crews from National Geographic magazine and television. The wildest part of the adventure was traversing to the bottom of the crater and then climbing up the near vertical fifteen meter spatter cone. At the top resides the world's largest lava lake, approximately 200 meters in diameter. I performed this climb twice. It is amazing to be within feet of such a large active magma body; heart-stopping. Strange analogy, but I felt like an ant on the rim of a large pot of boiling tomato sauce.

My goals were to collect a unique vertical sequence of lava flows from the crater wall representing different eruptive episodes in the volcano's history, and to obtain a zero-age magma sample from the lake. Both goals were accomplished. Strange analogy, but I felt like an ant on the rim of a large pot of boiling tomato sauce."… While the fieldwork is essential and exciting, the real science occurs in my isotope lab at UW. In fact I have a new PhD student coming in this year, who will work on this research project as part of her dissertation. Our research provides an important step toward understanding Nyiragongo's history, and predicting its future behavior.

To learn more, read The Volcano Next Door.

 

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