The eruption at Mt Nyiragongo

About twelve kilometres away from Goma – the capital of Northern Kivu Province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – lies an unpredictable neighbour.

A mountain with a penchant for natural disasters every few years, which has kept Goma residents always on the lookout for a red glow that could very well mean a cascade of lava down Mt Nyiragongo at impossible speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour.

You could say when it is peaceful, Mt Nyiragongo is a beautiful landform spawn by the Albertine Rift of the East African Rift Valley, with it kilometre wide lava lake boiling inside the steep caldera, its depth dictated by the mountain’s mood for a spill over.

Until May 22 this year, it had been nineteen years since the last time the mountain decided to spew some molten rock down its steep sides, which caused the death of about 250 people.

The city has swelled up since then, tripling its numbers to around 670,000 residents; and they were dumbstruck when the volcano started oozing lava just as the sun was setting on the fateful day.

Seemingly without warning.

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has reported that drones have been to the area, as have been helicopters, to monitor activities around the volcano so they do not escalate further without warning to residents of the border city nearby.

It is but a matter of if onlys and what ifs now, but drone technology could have done more before disaster struck. Not that they would have stopped it. No; drones might be good, but they are not that good.

But they definitely would have done a better job helping people monitoring the volcano to read the signs earlier.

Widespread reports about the latest eruption of Mt Nyiragongo volcano say this time it was a surprise attack – yet two months ago, Reuters had experts monitoring the volcano sounding the alarm about increased volcanic activity in the area, which signalled that it could explode any time soon.

They might have done that sooner too; but the volcanologists – members of the Goma Volcano Observatory, which is charged with monitoring activities at one of the only volcanoes in the world with an active lava lake – have sadly not been able to do their work effectively and reliably since last year.

Because the funds dried up.

There have been allegations of corruption, which saw funds meant for the observatory allegedly being embezzled, forcing the World Bank to halt channelling of a four-year $2million funding to the organisation. According to Reuters, while the bank said it could not independently verify the corruption charges, it held that custodians of such a huge grant had to be above suspicion; hence the halting of funding.

On its part, the government seems to have done nothing to fell the gap $2million gap left by the World Bank grant.

And right at the moment when the people of Goma needed help the most, their government and the international community abandoned them to the mercy of an unstable volcano that has claimed nearly 900 lives since 1977.

Volcanologist Honore Chiraba has spent the last nineteen years of his life climbing the mountain to check its levels of instability; but when the moment of reckoning beckoned, he could not give enough warning to fellow residents because he did not have enough data to go with. Just the hunches of a veteran volcano watcher who has dedicated his life to ensuring that no more of his countrymen and women lose their lives at the hands the natural phenomenon.

The drones that are now flying to assess the damage on the mountainside alongside helicopters might have made their reconnaissance earlier when it mattered.

Before Nyiragongo decided to clear its throat by coughing up some lava.

The lava at Mt Nyiragongo got into the streets, and into people’s homes. Picture: REUTERS/Djaffar Al Katanty

Teams on volcanic activity monitoring duties can now deploy drones using thermal video imagery and on-board gas sensors to patrol the vicinity of active volcanoes.

This was proved to work last May by researchers at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), who flew drones equipped with special camera and recording gear to map out the activities of the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala; with the flight mission recording that the lava dome is slowly expanding, and that its lava extrusion is fast.

“We have equipped a drone with different cameras,” says Edgar Zorn a scientist and post-doctoral researcher in volcanology, who worked on the project along with three other researchers. “We then flew the drone over the crater at various intervals, measuring the movements of lava flow and a lava dome using a specific type of stereo photography with a precision never seen before. By comparing the data from the drone, we were able to determine the flow velocity, movement patterns and surface temperature of the volcano.

“These parameters are important for predicting the danger of explosive volcanoes. The researchers also succeeded in deriving the flow properties of the lava from these data.

“We have shown that the use of drones can help to completely re-measure even the most dangerous and active volcanoes on Earth from a safe distance. A regular and systematic survey of dangerous volcanoes with drones seems to be almost within one’s grasp.”

Needless to say, the drone missions also considerably reduce the physical danger risk for volcanologists, as the cameras can be flown directly to survey the dangerous spots, without the scientists having to go near them themselves.

Indeed, as far as the GFZ research was concerned, the greatest challenge came, not from the field work, but with the data processing.

“The 3D models of the various flights must be positioned exactly so that they can be compared,” Zorn says. “This requires painstaking detail work, but the effort is worth it because even minimal movements become immediately visible. In the study, we presented some new possibilities for the representation and measurement of certain ground movements, which could be very useful in future projects.”

Otherwise, drone technology can be deployed to the area after the fact too, like they are doing with the eruption at Nyiragongo right now. Of course, they will still be useful then, besides just recording the scale of the disaster. Drones can assist emergency services providers in monitoring lava movement so they can act in good time about important decisions regarding nearby populations.

Indeed, it was as a result of such close scrutiny that the DRC government urged Goma residents from about ten neighbourhoods in the direct line of fire from the volcano that has already claimed over thirty lives (with about 40 reported as missing, according to UNICEF) to evacuate the town completely and seek refuge in the smaller town of Sake, 25km away, or in neighbouring Rwanda.

It is another humanitarian situation for the mineral-rich country, which is set to see the displacement of about 400,000 people, raising risks of epidemic outbreaks, especially in Sake, which UNICEF says was already grappling with a cholera outbreak, with 19 recorded cases in the last two weeks.

Many of those fleeing on Thursday travelled on foot, carrying mattresses and cooking utensils, while others escaped by car or on motorbikes, according to UNICEF.

Nearly 1,000 children who were separated from their parents amid the chaos following Saturday’s eruption, have now been identified, with UNICEF helping to reunite nearly 700 children with their families.

An additional 142 children have been placed in transitional foster families, while 78 are in transit accommodation centres. “Whenever large groups of people are displaced in a short period of time, the dangers to children increase”, warned UNICEF Representative in the DRC Edouard Beigbeder. “We must be alert to immediate risks for children on the move, including protection issues, nutrition and health risks, including waterborne disease and especially the spread of cholera.

“Tragically more than 170 families are still looking for lost children. UNICEF is now concerned that the chaos of the latest evacuations will result in more children being separated from their families.”

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