More than 100,000 people are unaccounted for after the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano in eastern Congo, which has devastated the town of Goma and sent another 300,000 victims fleeing into neighboring Rwanda. Tens of thousands more may be trapped between three rivers of molten rock streaming from central Africa?s most dangerous volcano. Now observers flying over the area report that a new cone is forming, six miles east of Nyiragongo.
Many wild animals in the forests around the volcano will be harmed by the torrent of lava, ash and sulfurous gas pouring from the crater. Nyiragongo is one of eight volcanoes on the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, a region with dense tropical forests and home to the mountain gorillas. Only 650 of these rare primates still exist in the wild.
However, the gorillas inhabit only the slopes of the six dormant volcanoes, and experts said they should be safe from the destruction inflicted by Nyiragongo on the town of Goma and the nearby forest. ?It is unlikely that the forest the gorillas inhabit will be affected greatly,? says Annette Lanjouw, head of the International Gorilla Conservation Program. ?However, chimpanzees and other wildlife in the forest around Nyiragongo will probably be devastated.? When Nyiragongo last erupted in 1977, killing scores of people and gutting the town, there were reports of dead elephants being found in the rubble alongside the human debris of cars and houses.
Sam Kanyamibwa, the east African representative for the World Wide Fund For Nature, says the recent eruption will affect every level of the mountain?s ecosystem, from worms to primates. ?The problem is the physical destruction of habitat, and of course the sulfur gases over the area,? he says. ?Obviously some animals have some possibility of moving to other places, snakes for example, but some will be trapped in the area. Also, the movement of the population, refugees, may lead to some instability in the region. This may lead to some problems for gorillas.?
Only about 650 mountain gorillas remain in the world, and more than half of those inhabit the slopes of the six dormant Virunga volcanoes. They are listed as critically endangered by international wildlife conventions.
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There has been fear that the lava pouring into Lake Kivu beside Goma may cause it to explode, due to the unusual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the depths of the lake. This will almost certainly not happen, a volcano expert says.
In the 1980s, two volcanic lakes with a similar composition in Cameroon exploded in this way. One of them, Lake Nyos, killed almost 1,800 people in 1986. But Michel Halbwachs, a vulcanologist and geochemist at the University of Savoie in France, says the gas accumulations in Lake Kivu are too deep to be affected by the rush of lava.
He says that although the gas, which is a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, is present at depths as shallow as 160 feet, the major concentrations are much deeper, too far down for the lava to reach. ?I think if the lava goes into the lake it will go in more slowly, a crust forms which slows it down,? he says. ?I don?t think it is possible that it would reach the depths of the gas.? Halbwachs has studied both Lake Kivu and the Cameroon lakes for many years and had planned to visit Kivu until the recent explosion changed his plans.
The shores of Lake Kivu have appeared to be smoking since Thursday, with white clouds billowing up from the surface of the water. But the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the gases are from the lava flowing into the lake, and not from the lake itself.
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