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Studying a volcano in a war zone

Scientists face an uphill battle to reveal Mount Nyiragongo’s fiery past and forecast its future

3:52pm, December 2, 2014
lava flow on Mount Nyiragongo

WAR ZONE VOLCANO  Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo devastated the city of Goma twice in the last 40 years. Its growing population needs better warning.

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On clear nights a red glow radiates from the top of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the mountain’s summit the source of the light thrashes and boils: the largest and most active lava lake in the world.

Among volcanoes, Nyiragongo stands out. The magma that fuels its violent eruptions is incredibly fluid, capable of racing down the mountainside at highway speeds. The volcano would be a hotbed of research activity — if it weren’t in the crossroads of war.

More than a million people live in the volcano’s shadow, many of them refugees from years of civil war and the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Eruptions in 1977 and 2002 poured fast-flowing lava into the booming city of Goma, killing hundreds and blackening the landscape. Yet after both eruptions, people returned to Goma before the lava hardened, and many others have found their way to its fertile land on the shore

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